The Oldie magazine - June 2021 issue (401)

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GREAT COMEDY DISASTERS – ROBERT BATHURST JOY OF SMARTIES – PHILIP NORMAN

June 2021 | £4.95 | www.theoldie.co.uk | Issue 401

Happy 90th birthday, Leslie Caron! Hugo Vickers Virginia McKenna, the African Queen – Roderick Gilchrist Strewth! Barry Humphries on Australian slang Princess Diana at 60 – Christopher Balfour



Give The Oldie for 67p an issue See p11

Diana at 60 page 15

Features 10 Tudor guide to pirates Colin Freeman 11 Not-so-smart Smarties Philip Norman 13 Farewell, theatrical anecdotes Christopher Douglas 15 Dearest Diana on her 60th birthday Christopher Balfour 16 Thank heaven for Leslie Caron Hugo Vickers 20 Heavenly Renaissance altarpieces David Eskerdjian 24 Dying on stage – a survivor’s guide Robert Bathurst 26 I was a teenage Marxist Bruce Anderson 28 Virginia McKenna, the African queen Roderick Gilchrist 30 A guide to rude Australian words Barry Humphries 33 A French view of Ascot Théophile Gautier 34 Sex-mad D H Lawrence Frances Wilson 36 Churchill’s mommie dearest Anne Sebba 42 Tears in Provence Jeremy Scott

Regulars 5 The Old Un’s Notes 7 Bliss on Toast Prue Leith

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Leslie Caron, Gigi star, at 90 page 16 9 Gyles Brandreth’s Diary 12 Olden Life: What was the Bedford Square Book Bang? Valerie Grove 12 Modern Life: What is a non-fungible token? Richard Godwin 22 Small World Jem Clarke 38 Town Mouse Tom Hodgkinson 39 Country Mouse Giles Wood 40 Postcards from the Edge Mary Kenny 44 God Sister Teresa 44 Funeral Service: Shan Gardner James Hughes-Onslow 45 The Doctor’s Surgery Theodore Dalrymple 46 Readers’ Letters 48 I Once Met… Pope John Paul II Christopher Hunt 48 Memory Lane 49 School Days Sophia Waugh 49 Quite Interesting Things about ... June John Lloyd 63 Media Matters Stephen Glover 65 History David Horspool Editor Harry Mount Sub-editor Penny Phillips Art editor John Bowling Books editor Claudia FitzHerbert Supplements editor Liz Anderson Editorial assistant Donna Freed Publisher James Pembroke Patron saint Jeremy Lewis At large Richard Beatty Our Old Master David Kowitz

Virginia McKenna looks back page 28

67 Words and Stuff Johnny Grimond 67 Rant: Smutty TV Mark Solomons 95 Crossword 97 Bridge Andrew Robson 97 Competition Tessa Castro 106 Ask Virginia Ironside

Books 51 A Stinging Delight, by David Storey Michael Billington 53 Valentine Ackland: A Transgressive Life, by Frances Bingham A N Wilson 53 Going with the Boys, by Judith Mackrell Sarah Sands 55 The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid, by Lawrence Wright Ivo Dawnay 57 The Broken House, by Horst Krüger Tibor Fischer 59 Napoleon’s Plunder and the Theft of Veronese’s Feast, by Cynthia Saltzman Niall Hobhouse 61 The Paper Lantern, by Will Burns Laura Beatty

Travel 86 Ecstasy on Exmoor Ivo Dawnay Oldie subscriptions ● To place a new order, please visit our website subscribe.theoldie.co.uk ● To renew a subscription, please visit myaccount.theoldie.co.uk ● If you have any queries, please email help@ subscribe.theoldie.co.uk, or write to: Oldie Subscriptions, Rockwood House, 9-16 Perrymount Road, Haywards Heath, West Sussex RH16 3DH

88 Overlooked Britain: Skibo Castle Lucinda Lambton 91 Taking a Walk: Jersey’s battle royal Patrick Barkham 93 On the Road: David Hockney Louise Flind

Arts 68 Film: The Father Harry Mount 69 Theatre: Love Letters William Cook 69 Radio Valerie Grove 70 Television Roger Lewis 71 Music Richard Osborne 72 Golden Oldies Elaine Pittuck 73 Exhibitions Huon Mallalieu

Pursuits 75 Gardening David Wheeler 75 Kitchen Garden Simon Courtauld 76 Cookery Elisabeth Luard 76 Restaurants James Pembroke 77 Drink Bill Knott 78 Sport Jim White 78 Motoring Alan Judd 80 Digital Life Matthew Webster 80 Money Matters Margaret Dibben 82 Getting Dressed: Dame Beryl Grey Brigid Keenan 85 Bird of the Month: Red Kite John McEwen Oldie book orders ● Please email bookorders@theoldie.co.uk Advertising For display, contact: Paul Pryde on 020 3859 7095 or Melissa Arancio on 07305 010659 For classified, contact: Kami Jogee on 07983 097477 News-stand enquiries mark.jones@newstrademarketing.co.uk Front cover World History Archive /Alamy

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The Old Un’s Notes

Barry’s pick: Jack Hawkins in The League of Gentlemen

Our radio correspondent, Valerie Grove, has just unearthed a shaming letter she received from the great comedian Barry Cryer in 1970. At the time she was, briefly, standing in as TV previewer for the Evening Standard. ‘Dear Valerie,’ wrote Barry, ‘I must thank you on behalf of those readers of the Standard who do not own a copy of Movies on TV by Leslie Halliwell and have therefore been saved 7/6d – as your film previews appear to be taken verbatim from this book, coupled with a few gems from the Radio and TV Times. Why not throw in one or two original thoughts of your own? Or are you, as I suspect, much too young to know, or even have heard of, many of the films in question? ‘If so, my congratulations on your sheer nerve, and please forward me the 7/6d I needn’t have spent…’ Valerie was duly chastened at being rumbled by Barry. ‘I wrote back at once to say he was right. It was true: I was, at 23, indeed far too young to have seen much vintage stuff.

Although a moviegoer, I was not a buff.’ So Valerie duly sent Barry a cheque for 7s 6d. She says, ‘I rather expected he might flash it around triumphantly among his pals, or even frame it in his loo. But, worse than that, he cashed the cheque!’ Barry was suitably shocked when Valerie read him the letter he wrote 50 years ago – ‘What a pompous fellow!’ Barry says – and made amends by telling her an absolutely outrageous story with an unprintable punchline. He also – to rub salt in the wound – recommended an old movie on TV that

night: The League of Gentlemen, the 1960 crime caper with Jack Hawkins, Richard Attenborough and Roger Livesey, directed by Basil Dearden. It was, Valerie agreed, brilliant. Live summer shows at Glastonbury have been cancelled and the Chelsea Flower Show postponed. But, still, the third World Chelsea Bun Awards went ahead this year. Set up by Partridges, the King’s Road grocer, the competition was held in Chelsea. This year’s competition attracted traditional and

Among this month’s contributors Robert Bathurst (p24) is in The Mezzotint (BBC4) and Munich (Netflix), coming out later this year. He is co-directing The Fall, a film about jockeys. He starred in Cold Feet. Anne Sebba (p36) is the author of Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy, published on 24th June. She also wrote That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor. Christopher Douglas (p13) plays Ed Reardon in Ed Reardon’s Week (Radio 4), which begins a new series on 9th June. He also writes the series, with Andrew Nickolds. Philip Norman (p11) wrote Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation, The Stones: The Acclaimed Biography, John Lennon: The Life and Paul McCartney: The Biography.

highly innovative entries from America, Canada, Turkey, Taiwan and Germany, as well as lots of British entries. Participants ranged in age from six to 85. The Supreme Champion 2021, as selected by four Chelsea-based judges, was British bakery La Bonne Parisienne, based in Shropshire. The Chelsea bun first emerged in the early 1700s at the Chelsea Bun House near Pimlico Road. It is celebrated today in the name of the nearby street Bunhouse Place. Under the stewardship of Richard Hand, known locally as Captain Bun, and his family, the Bun House flourished for over 100 years before closing in 1838. George I and George II were loyal customers and the Bun House appeared in Dickens, Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll. Sadly, the Chelsea bun was usurped by the hot cross bun – actually invented several decades after the Chelsea bun. According to the renowned food writer Jane Grigson, the Chelsea bun is the ‘best of all buns’. The Old Un couldn’t agree more. An apparent outbreak of republican fervour at the Queen’s English Society has been crushed. Last year, the society toyed with ditching the monarch from its title and calling itself something The Oldie June 2021 5


Important stories you may have missed Open windows at school shock mum Nottingham Post Man hid in bush after breaking into dentists Inverness Courier

Man jailed after breaking into cinema and stealing fizzy drinks Lincolnshire Live £15 for published contributions

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non-hierarchical like the Better English Society. Various options were considered. The result? A ballot paper was sent to members, offering two names: either, er, the Queen’s English Society or, come the doleful day, the King’s English Society. As the society’s membership secretary, Adrian Williams, put it, ‘A change in name would have to be registered with the Charity Commission and, with our various bank accounts and the effort required, that needs more justification than any so far offered.’ How very wise it often is to do absolutely nothing. Much-missed national treasure Humphrey Lyttelton, who died in 2008, would have celebrated his 100th birthday on 23rd May. Jazz trumpeter, broadcaster, cartoonist and journalist, he was best known as the long-standing chairman of BBC Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue comedy panel game (launched in 1972). Born at Eton College, the son of a housemaster (himself the son of the 8th Viscount Cobham), he was descended from a Gunpowder Plotter, who was hanged, drawn and quartered for his treachery. While at Eton, Lyttelton fagged for Lord Carrington and formed a jazz band which included the future journalist Ludovic Kennedy on drums. After serving in Italy in the

Second World War, Lyttelton studied at Camberwell Art School with jazz clarinettist Wally Fawkes (aka the cartoonist Trog). In 1949, he

Humphrey Lyttelton (19212008): silliness was vital

joined the Daily Mail as a cartoonist (Humph) and was later also a scriptwriter on Fawkes’s long-running Flook comic strip. He left in 1956 to pursue his jazz career and, in the same year, his Bad Penny Blues became the first jazz single to reach the Top 20. In honour of his work on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, the Southampton Arms pub opposite Mornington Crescent station was in 2010 renamed the Lyttelton Arms. Humph once said, ‘As we journey through life, discarding baggage along the way, we should keep an iron grip, to the very end, on the capacity for silliness. It preserves the soul from desiccation.’

The Imperial War Museum has just republished one of the great forgotten novels of the Second World War, Sword of Bone by Anthony Rhodes. The book is really a thinly disguised memoir by Rhodes (1916-2004). It tells the story of a narrator – Rhodes, essentially – who, like Rhodes, served with the Army in France during the Phoney War. Rhodes, too, like the narrator, was evacuated from Dunkirk in May 1940. The book is made all the more paradoxically compelling through its lack of drama. Like so many people’s wars, Anthony Rhodes’s consisted of long periods of nothing very much, punctuated by sudden bursts of terror. In that regard, it is not unlike the depiction in the war novels in Anthony Powell’s 12-book sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time. So often, war is portrayed as a great game, conducted by world leaders – or as bloodand-thunder heroics. For most combatants, the truth – boredom and terror – is much closer to the sort of thing Rhodes portrays. As for Rhodes, he remained a writer after the war, producing histories of the Vatican and covering the 1956 Hungarian Revolution for the Telegraph.

Very sharp: Sword of Bone

The Blue Guides have gone fictional. Don’t worry! The eminent cultural guidebooks, published since 1918, are still thriving. There are new Blue


Guides to Rome and Mediterranean Turkey. But the company are now publishing novels and short stories, too. This spring, they are releasing The Remarkable Mrs Anderson (published in English for the first time) and The Monkey and other stories, both by Miklós Bánffy (1873-1950).

‘It’s a new game I taught them, “Daddy’s mid-life crisis” ’

Bánffy is best-known for The Transylvanian Trilogy, published between 1934 and 1940. A Hungarian count, he was made Foreign Minister of Hungary in 1921. In 1943, he desperately tried to persuade Hungary and Romania to switch sides from Germany to the Allies. It led to his estate being burnt by retreating Germans in 1945. These new translations aren’t full of heavy politics, you’ll be relieved to hear. The Remarkable Mrs Anderson is, in fact, a jolly crime caper set in Budapest and Palermo.

Bánffy – like Disraeli – is a rare exception to the otherwise reliable rule: politicians can’t write good novels. The much-loved and always impeccably dressed Oldie cartoonist Brian Bagnall, who died in 2004, would have been 100 this year (on 22nd April). He did stylish, often captionless work for The Oldie (including contributions to the first Oldie Book of Cartoons in 1995). But he was perhaps best known as the illustrator (from 1985 to 1989) of Private Eye’s ‘Dear Bill’ series lampooning Denis and Margaret Thatcher, created by John Wells and Oldie founder Richard Ingrams. In 1985, he illustrated Down the Hatch (pictured), the first of the final six (of 11) collections of the ‘Dear Bill’ letters. Brian was also a talented poet, a lover of Welsh sheepdogs and the proud owner of a Sinclair C5 three-wheeler car. Formerly a professional architect, he was nearly 60 when he became a full-time cartoonist. He worked from his home, the National Trust’s picturesque 18th-century watermill at Shalford near Guildford (of which he was custodian for more than 50 years). During the war, he served as a captain in the Royal Artillery; he was captured and sent to a POW camp near

prue leith

Bliss on Toast

Quick, easy, comforting and delicious suppers

Tomatoes with English pesto (parsley, walnuts, Cheddar, rapeseed oil and garlic) on toasted focaccia

Munich, Germany. His first illustrations were due to be

Dear Bill, illustrated by dear Brian Bagnall (1921-2004)

‘Cream first, then jam’

published in the camp magazine when an Allied bomb destroyed the printing machine. Confusingly, last year brought the sad death of another British cartoonist and illustrator of the same name, who was born in 1943 and, by a strange coincidence, had a distinguished career working in Munich. There the confusion ends, though, as Brian of The Oldie, from a devout Catholic family, had an unusual, additional

Christian name for a man – he was baptised Brian George Mary Bagnall. Nero: the man behind the myth is the new show at the British Museum (27th May to 24th October). One highlight is this head of Nero, found in the River Alde in Suffolk, on the border between the Trinovantes and the Iceni. The head is thought to have been ripped off a statue in Camulodunum (Colchester) in Boadicea’s rebellion in 60 AD. Boadicea then burnt down Londinium. Rome, too, was hit with a huge fire in 64 AD. Poor Nero – fiddling while two great cities burned.

Emperor Nero: fiddling while Londinium burned The Oldie June 2021 7



Gyles Brandreth’s Diary

I love Liz Hurley, topless or not

The actress has regal grace, whatever she is – or isn’t – wearing Catching sight of Elizabeth Hurley’s breasts on page 87 of the Spring issue of The Oldie reminded me of several things, as you might imagine. Chief among them, beyond the fact that this magazine never ceases to surprise me, was a sudden vivid recollection of the night Ms Hurley taught me that in this country we seem to need royalty. Back in June 2003, I helped out at a charity gala at Grosvenor House. The charity (for children with Down’s Syndrome) was one that had been close to the heart of Diana, Princess of Wales. But for her tragic death, she would have been there as guest of honour. Because she couldn’t be, Liz Hurley came in her place – and played her part to perfection. Beautiful, gracious and friendly (with just the right touch of formality), she was a princess in all but title and, as I escorted her around the Great Room, everyone treated her as such and was evidently eager to do so. Men bowed, women curtsied (truly), and children stepped shyly forward to hand over small posies of flowers. If we didn’t have royals, we’d have to invent them. From The Crown on Netflix to near-nightly royal documentaries on terrestrial TV, from Harry podcasting in LA to Andrew lurking in the shrubbery at Windsor, there’s a royal story wherever you look. Because I have written the Duke of Edinburgh’s biography and kept popping up on the box in tributes to him around the time of his funeral, in recent weeks complete strangers have been approaching me in the street to tell me their Prince Philip stories. Most of the anecdotes follow the same pattern: a brief encounter with a bit of royal banter that was funnier at the time than it seems in the retelling. Usually in these stories His Royal Highness gets the last word, but not always. I was accosted by an old gentleman who had worked backstage at the Theatre

Royal, Windsor, when, years ago, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh came to a performance of Agatha Christie’s play Witness for the Prosecution. On the night, my old gentleman overheard the Duke cross-questioning the theatre manager, quizzing him about the theatre’s finances, the actors’ salaries, the cost of the production and so on. Finally, Prince Philip asked whether the news that the Queen and he were coming had made any difference to business. ‘Well, sir,’ replied the manager, ‘to a play by Agatha Christie on a Saturday night, the honest answer must be “No”.’ Mark Smith, Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Behavioural Sciences at the University of the West Indies, got in touch with a story his father used to tell. Back in the day, Peter George Smith was a Detective Sergeant on Kendal CID. One night, he was one of two police bodyguards for the Royal Train, then parked in a siding at Carnforth Station. During the night, they heard steps to the WC, a tinkle and the door being closed. According to Professor Smith, ‘As the Duke padded back to bed, Dad said to the constable, “Dirty bugger – didn’t even wash his hands.” The response was a two-fingered salute from Prince Philip, rudely thrust through the ventilation window on the side of the train carriage.’ My favourite story dates from 1947 and came to me from Hanne Bailson, then

18 and living in the war-ravaged German city of Hannover. At the Hannover trade fair, Hanne’s father was manning an exhibition stand and her stepmother was providing refreshments. Hanne and her girlfriend, Waltraut, were on the stand when ‘three gents interested in electronic development’ turned up. Good-looking young men, they asked her father where they might find a place to have a meal and a drink. ‘My father turned to me and asked if we had any suggestions,’ Hanne said. The only place the girls could think of was Die Rote Mühle – Hannover’s answer to Le Moulin Rouge, a nightclub, recently reopened in a ruined basement, with a very limited menu and a small dance floor. The young men asked if the girls could show them the way. ‘When we got to the club,’ says Hanne, ‘they invited us to join them. We accepted, a little overwhelmed. They introduced themselves. Adolphe said he was French. I cannot recall the third person’s name, but I remember Adolphe said we should call the tall, very handsome chap Raoul.’ The evening was great fun. Having a restaurant meal was a treat and there was a trio providing music to dance to. ‘At the time, the samba was all the rage,’ remembers Hanne, ‘and Raoul and I had a go at mastering it – I dare say, not very well.’ According to Hanne, English was spoken throughout and ‘the gents’ behaviour was impeccable.’ Adolphe then took the girls home in his car and thanked them for the evening. ‘It was a few weeks later that Waltraut came to me, excitedly waving a newspaper, with Raoul on the front page and an announcement of his engagement to Princess Elizabeth.’ So now you know it: Raoul was Prince Philip’s nom de guerre. The Oldie really is full of surprises. And exclusives. Philip: The Final Portrait by Gyles Brandreth is out now (Coronet) The Oldie June 2021 9


Tudor guide to hijacks What do you do when modern pirates attack? An Elizabethan estate agent has the answer, says Colin Freeman

T

he hijacking of the cargo ship Albedo was living proof that worse things happen at sea. Its 23 crew were captured by Somali pirates in late 2010, only to discover that the ship’s owner lacked the money to pay a ransom. They spent the next three years stuck in captivity, often tortured by their captors, who presumed the owner’s plea of penury was just a callous negotiating ploy. One sailor was executed in cold blood; others beaten and lashed for weeks on end. Merchant mariners may bring us most of our daily goods, as the world was reminded recently when the Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal. But when they get hijacked, they seldom attract the attention of celebrities or human-rights groups. Instead, the Albedo crew’s salvation came in the rather less fashionable form of a semi-retired British colonel living in Kenya, John Steed, who masterminded a bold, private mission to free them. In 2013, Steed had just finished working as Britain’s military attaché to Nairobi, and was working as a UN counter-piracy envoy, liaising with the international anti-piracy fleet, patrolling the Somali coast. He knew there was little chance of teams of SAS or US Navy Seals steaming to the rescue, Captain Phillips-style. Sadly, countries with special forces will generally use only their own citizens. As Steed, 65, puts it, ‘I figured that if I didn’t do anything, then nobody else would either.’ At first, he hoped to persuade the pirates to release the hostages on humanitarian grounds. But they proved deaf to his pleas. Reluctantly, Steed concluded that that the only way to free them was to raise money for the ransom himself. One of his hardest tasks was the bit he presumed might be the easiest – raising the ransom cash. Steed got some help from well-wishers within the maritime industry, some of whom had themselves had ships hijacked. But, with the shipping already 10 The Oldie June 2021

hit hard by the piracy crisis, it was slow going. The whip-round raised only around $200,000, while the pirates holding the Albedo wanted at least $1 million. In the end, Steed and his team were forced to take desperate measures. Cutting the rest of the pirates out the deal, they paid the entire $200,000 to one senior commander, who helped the hostages escape one night. It worked. The Albedo crew were freed in the summer of 2014, a day Steed recalls as one of ‘indescribable joy’. He and his team then turned their attention to two other forgotten hijacked ships, the Thaiflagged trawler Prantalay 12 and the Taiwan-flagged trawler Naham 3. Both crews had been put on near-starvation diets by their captors, and eight sailors were already dead from malnutrition. Once again, though, fundraising was slow, and the rescue mission dragged on until late 2016. By the time they were finally released, the two crews had both been held for nearly five years, earning them the dubious distinction of being the longest-running hijack cases in modern pirate history. Steed has received no official gong for his efforts; nor has his colleague Leslie Edwards, a professional hostage negotiator who worked with him. Perhaps that’s understandable. Ransom payments, no matter how dire a hostage’s plight, are seldom seen as Heroic estate agent: Henry Smith

anything but a murky moral compromise. Yet it wasn’t always so. In early 2015, after writing an article about Steed’s fundraising quest, I was contacted by a reader, Ted Phillips, who asked me if he’d tried the Henry Smith Charity. Smith (1548-1628), an Elizabethan businessman, was one of Britain’s earliest and most successful estate agents, making a fortune selling property around London. When he died, he bequeathed a $1,000 trust fund specifically ‘for the relief and ransom of poore captives’ being held hostage by Barbary pirates. This was a fashionable cause among Elizabethans, given that thousands of British sailors were being held captive in North Africa. As the Barbary piracy threat ebbed away, Smith’s fund remained. Thanks to further shrewd property investments by its trustees, today it is one of Britain’s richest grant-making bodies. Every year, the foundation gives tens of millions to good causes ‘to honour the spirit of Henry Smith’s will’. ‘Why hasn’t it come forward in these years of piracy?’ Mr Phillips asked me. I rang the charity – which, perhaps unsurprisingly, turned out no longer to be in the business of funding pirates. Today, most of their grants went on a more conventional array of good causes, from underprivileged children through to Girl Guides and ex-offenders. They also funded only UK-based charities – which, technically, would rule out donations on behalf of seafarers from distant lands. But part of me thinks about those 41 hostages, and how long they suffered. Henry Smith would not, I suspect, have minded the charity’s bending the rules a bit for old times’ sake. Colin Freeman was Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph, 2006-16. His book, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: The Mission to Rescue the Hostages the World Forgot, is out now (Icon Books)


Philip Norman used to guzzle the chocolates from a tube – not today’s hexagonal nightmare

T

hese days of enforced solitude have increased the need for guilty pleasures, and this has been my guiltiest so far. The other day, for the first time in years, I bought myself a tube of Smarties. Only now it barely qualifies as a tube. In place of the old, cardboard cylinder (pictured), there’s a flimsy, hexagonal ‘pack’, introduced in 2005, with no plastic top (so satisfying to flick out with one’s thumb). The real let-down was what I got for 90p – a miserly 33 Smarties. This from a brand whose TV jingle in the 1950s still echoes through my brain: ‘A tube of Smarties means lots and lots of chocolate beans. Yes, you get lots and lots and lots and lots and LOTS of Smarties.’ And then the enigmatic pay-off that became a national catch phrase: ‘Buy some for Lulu.’ When I was growing up, they seemed as much currency as confectionery. A boxful, then costing 1s 6d (7.5p), represented real wealth to me. In that era of minimal hygiene regulation, you could also buy loose Smarties, shovelled in a metal scoop from a glass jar containing multitudes. Even then, I felt a bit of guilt, for they seemed baby sweets like Dolly Mixture or chocolate buttons. However, the passing shame was well worth it. You could pack your cheek with them like a hamster, though it was far more pleasurable to savour them in twos and threes, separating the chocolate from their shells in your mouth or letting them dissolve on your tongue. Those Smarties were brilliant and lustrous and each had a character one could have recognised in a blind tasting. The light brown kind were filled with milky chocolate. Dark brown ones were coffee-flavoured, orange ones tasted orangey and red ones – bold enough to bet on a roulette wheel at Monte Carlo – tasted unmistakably red.

Twenty-first-century Smarties, by contrast, are semi-matte, washed-out shades of pink, violet and green, like old-fashioned ones already half-sucked. No doubt it’s the result of being ‘free of all preservatives’, as their quasi-tube tells us, amid an overload of other inedible information. Invented in 1937 by the Rowntree company, Smarties are now owned by Nestlé, which the British used to pronounce like another word for cuddle, but have reluctantly learned to call Nest-lay. So many of our other favourite chocolate treats have undergone drastic portion control, while steadily increasing in price. Whenever I see displays of today’s miniaturised Mars bars, Aeros and KitKats, the same thought occurs: ‘They’re having a laugh.’ Admittedly, it’s a common illusion for things in one’s childhood to seem in retrospect bigger than they really were. To support me on the chocolate, I therefore call on a classic British black-and-white wartime film about people being sweet on each other. In Brief Encounter (1945), when Celia Johnson’s garrulous woman friend buys two one-shilling bars in the station buffet, they look almost the size of house bricks. I don’t say Smarties used to be bigger or contain more per tube. They were just infinitely more fun. Now they’re lots and lots and lots and lots and LOTS of chocolate has-beens. Philip Norman is author of Wild Thing: The Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix (W&N)

N W ! O D CK CK BA LO IS R R U E O FF O

Not-so-smart Smarties

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what was the Bedford Square Book Bang? Fifty years ago, on 28th May 1971, the first British literary festival was launched. The Bedford Square Book Bang was the brainchild of the dandyish Martyn Goff, bookseller son of a Russian furrier in Hampstead. Goff ran the Ibis Bookshop in Banstead, Surrey, and on the side wrote novels, some with daringly gay themes. He wore square, horn-rimmed specs and striped blazers, and lived in Chelsea next door to Peter Sellers. Goff was determined to shake up the somnolent book world. When he got the job of heading the almost-moribund National Book League, he resolved to ‘make books fun’. His 1970 Christmas poster had the slogan ‘Give a book this present’. The publishing elders muttered about its grammar; but young whizz kids such as Tom Maschler thoroughly approved of his chutzpah and dynamism. ‘If only we had 20 Martyn Goffs,’ Maschler said. So Goff’s creation the Book Bang came to be. It was a jamboree in staid Bedford Square, with a candy-striped big top. Coco the Clown opened it with an exploding book, along with performing animals and acrobats. Authors greeted readers and sold their books in person. Goff asked Norman Mailer, Graham Greene and Antonia

what is... a non-fungible token? A non-fungible token (NFT) is basically a way of making things on the internet exclusive and ownable. The term is particularly used of art sold exclusively online. NFTs are either the future of fine-art collecting or the latest insane internet speculation bubble. At Christie’s in February, American digital artist Beeple – aka Mike Winkelmann, 39 – sold an NFT of his digital collage Everydays: The 12 The Oldie June 2021

Man of letters: father of the literary festival, Martyn Goff (1923-2015)

be going somewhere special!” Those were the days.’ Inevitably, it rained. The publisher Liz Calder recalls only wading through mud. Still, for a bargain 50p, you saw Clive James, Spike Milligan, Kingsley Amis, Stephen Spender, Barbara Cartland, Cliff Richard, Seamus Heaney, Ivor Cutler and Sooty and Sweep. Young Mary Berry did a cookery show. For £3, you could be drawn by distinguished artist Feliks Topolski. My father, Doug Smith, was among several performing cartoonists. Another was Frank Dickens, of Bristow fame. He allegedly disappeared into the bushes with a comely young lady who emerged with Bristow figures drawn in felt-tip on her bosom. The publisher Patrick Janson-Smith recalls a graffito in the Portaloo: ‘Blonds prefer gentlemen’ (referring to gay publisher Antony Blond). John Walsh, later the Sunday Times books editor, was a ‘derangedly literature-crazed’ Oxford-bound sixthformer when he ventured into Bedford Square one evening, and was ‘entranced’. He spoke to nobody, and bought only the Selected Poems of Louis MacNeice. ‘What fun it all seemed,’ he says, ‘with the books laid out by subject in the open air and the summer lights.’ Who could have imagined that within a decade or two, festive marquees would be sprouting in squares from Edinburgh to Hay-on-Wye, and in every city and market town in the land? Valerie Grove

First 5000 Days, for 42,329.453 ether – around £50 million in old money. Ethereum is a kind of cryptocurrency. It was the first time that Christie’s had completed a sale in cryptocurrency. It was also the first time no one even bothered to pretend that the art was any good. And it was the first time it had sold an entirely digital-based work. For Beeple’s work doesn’t exist in material reality. Everyone from Pussy Riot to Damien Hirst is getting in on NFTs. Basketball fans are using them to trade exclusive NBA highlights reels. Crude animations of cats are selling for half a million pounds. And teenagers are sharing

videos on YouTube about how they became NFT millionaires. NFTs work in the same way as bitcoin, ethereum and other cryptocurrencies; the movement is sometimes known as CryptoArt. Cryptocurrencies rely on something called the blockchain, which is a sort of massive spreadsheet created by lots and lots of computers linked together. The blockchain is extremely difficult to hack. This means you can register ownership of things on the internet. Bitcoins, for example. That’s a whole crazy thing in itself. But also NFTs, which you can exchange for pretty much anything: songs,

Fraser. Neither Mailer nor Greene materialised, but the glamorous Lady Antonia (‘I never said no in those days’) pitched up, talking about Mary, Queen of Scots – ‘High in the charts since 1969, God bless her’. Michael Bakewell, BBC drama producer and husband of Joan, masterminded the five events each day, aided by his assistant Diana Tyler, now a literary agent. Joan recalls ‘great excitement and turmoil’. The Bakewells’ daughter, Harriet, aged 13, was there, as was Harold Pinter’s son, Daniel, also 13. At the Suggest a Book Title stall, young Harriet brightly suggested The Hero Knew What He Was Doing. Margaret Drabble, the young star novelist, remembers only that she was wearing ‘my Great Aunt Flora’s adorable little black-knitted vest … I’ve forgotten which skirt, but I know it looked great because the taxi-driver said, “You must


videos, pictures, GIFs, tweets … whatever you want. If you are an artist, that sounds like a potential godsend. But one of the problems with the internet for artists is that it renders so many of the things they create worthless in economic terms. You can create a perfect replica of a song file again and again – which rather messes with the whole supply-and-demand equation. An NFT means creators can sell limited-edition animations, videos, memes etc, and even earn commission each time the work is sold on. However, like any scarce resource, NFTs are now traded in the hope that their value will continue to rise – despite

Virtual art: Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days exists only online

dire warnings about the flimsiness of the underlying code. ‘Right now, NFTs are built on an absolute house of cards, constructed by the people selling them,’ warns one software engineer. There’s also nothing to stop some internet roustabout from, say, releasing something as a singleedition NFT, cashing in and then making 100 copies of it and selling those, too. Still more concerning is the appalling amount of resources it takes to power the blockchain. A Cambridge University study recently calculated that bitcoin-mining consumes more energy than Argentina. Richard Godwin

Theatrical anecdotes exit stage left Radio plays and sitcoms have been produced in much the same way for nearly a century. Those baggy-suited variety acts, huddled behind vintage Marconi microphones, would feel quite at home in a modern studio. But over a year ago we had to learn how to record shows from home while connected to each other via Zoom. It has brought a profound cultural change. Tales of professional humiliation and misconduct have been integral to a day’s radio work for as long as I can recall. Relieved of the need to memorise lines, everyone relaxes; so much so that when certain actors are cast, an extra half-hour has to be built into the schedule to accommodate their amusing reminiscences. However, the new process was so fraught with tension that there was neither the time nor the appetite for the usual actorly ramblings between takes. Remote recording has killed off the traditional long-form actor’s anecdote. The work gets done a little more quickly and it is certainly exciting – but it’s not as much fun. Theatrical anecdotes provoke Marmite reactions. They thrive in after-dinner speeches and anthologies, and some of us enjoy them, but most actors – the younger ones especially – dread being forcibly regaled with accounts of non-ringing telephones, pistols that refuse to fire, usurpers lying drunk on the dressing-room floor and so on. Actors in regular employment routinely see far worse things happening on studio sets or in location hotels. In truth, there has never been much insider love for the whiskery old yarn ending with the lame coda ‘But

fortunately the audience never noticed a thing.’ A far more popular brand of acting anecdote, which has also been dealt a mortal blow by the lockdowns, is breaking news concerning the recent behaviour of famous colleagues: acts of naked ambition, for example, or simple food theft. This kind of thing can transform a modestly-paid day into a thoroughly worthwhile and enjoyable one. But no longer. Moreover, Zoom doesn’t allow two actors to sneak into a corner and share unsubstantiated rumours; so gossip is facing extinction, too. Why do actors need to tell these stories? An actor’s psychotherapist might say that shared disaster narratives serve as useful survival parables for a workforce often teetering on the edge of humiliation. Whatever the motive, the stories are gone now; or if not gone, then crudely reduced to snatched exchanges during technical outages, and liable to be cut short just as the allegations are getting juicy. Instead, we have Falstaffian abuse

directed at laptop screens, climactic lines of dialogue underscored by passing ice-cream vans, feet catching in stray cables and bringing homemade mic stands crashing down. Most dramatic of all are the sudden silences of an actor with a TalkTalk broadband connection. It can sometimes be fun to witness – as when, say, an ice-cool screen goddess swears inarticulately at an options menu, or a grizzled, sci-fi franchise hero shrieks, ‘If I’d wanted to be a bloody technician, I’d have gone to ******* computer school instead of RADA!’ But we would all go back to the old method tomorrow if we could. There are reports of radio shows returning to the studios, but remote recording has proved far too useful to be abandoned. It really could be curtains for the theatrical anecdote. Christopher Douglas Christopher Douglas is in the new series of Ed Reardon’s Week (Radio 4, from 9th June)

The Oldie June 2021 13



Dearest Diana Christopher Balfour fondly recalls a hilarious trip to New York with the princess, who would have been 60 on 1st July

TIM GRAHAM/GETTY

W

hen Princess Diana approached me about selling her dresses at Christie’s, I was very new

as Chairman. ‘I’d have to check with my fellow directors, Ma’am,’ I said. ‘I’m not sure we do clothes.’ ‘It’s a bit better than second-hand clothes!’ she said. Princess Diana behaved very well throughout the whole sale. She was fantastically kind to all the staff at Christie’s. The plan was for us to stay in New York for three or four days. We stayed at the Carlyle and had breakfast, lunch and dinner together every day. For the actual sale, on 25th June 1997, we were originally going to watch the evening auction in a private room at Christie’s New York and then take a late-night flight to London. On the day of the sale, she said, ‘I’ve got a feeling about this evening. I don’t think the prices will go well. It’s going to be a failure. I don’t want to be surrounded by the press if it is. So I’d prefer to leave New York before the auction.’ ‘Of course,’ I said. ‘You’ve been so kind and helpful. I don’t think you should be worried, but I understand your fears.’ We booked the 8pm flight instead, taking off just as the auction was starting. That day, we went to a lunch party at Kenny Lane’s [the jewellery designer]. We packed and had tea at the Carlyle. We were given dinner at the airport by BA in a private room – a delicious dinner and delicious wine. Because it was a last-minute booking on a full flight, it was complicated. BA said they were boarding us first – which is fine in a 747, because you go to the front of the plane and no one needs see you again. But this was a plane that was the next size down. It meant that everyone had to walk past us, as first class and club class

Princess Diana, Lord Hindlip and Christopher Balfour, Christie’s, 2nd June 1997

used the same entrance and the passengers followed the same route. We should really have been boarded last. BA gave us ten minutes to get into our pyjamas and sleepers. We were in the two beds in the middle – like a double bed, they were so close – with two empty beds on either side, by the windows, kept free. So there we were in our PJs, sitting there like a couple of models, for everybody who came in to see. When the first-class passengers came in, there were six people we knew. They had a hell of a laugh. Diana was very good at enjoying those jokes. At the end of the whole thing, after we came back from the sale in New York, she wanted to give a lunch – ‘For the junior people, not the directors,’ she said. ‘We can have 16 for lunch at Kensington Palace. Us two – and then give me 14 names for a lunch before I go off on my summer holidays.’ It was a sweet idea. She gave this terribly nice lunch to all the staff who’d done all the publicity and printing. They loved it. After the lunch, we had a chat about our summer plans. She said she was off on a French holiday with her children,

her sisters and their children. William and Harry would then go off to Balmoral – sadly leaving her on her own. We all know what happened next. On Saturday 30th August, I drove down from Scotland with my dogs to Oxfordshire. I didn’t get in until 10pm. I had a boiled egg and four glasses of wine and heard she’d been in an accident – that she’d been injured. I woke up very early on Sunday morning to hear funereal music on the radio. She’d died. I jumped out of bed. I rang up the night security at Christie’s. We were the first people to have our flag at half-mast. The auction had in fact been a huge success, raising $3.25m. Half of the proceeds went to the Royal Marsden Hospital Cancer Fund and the other half to the AIDS Crisis Trust. I felt incredibly pleased because at the time I was a trustee of the AIDS Crisis Trust. We hadn’t had that sort of money in the charity before. We’d done film premières and raised tens of thousands. This was millions – and she gave it all away. Christopher Balfour was Chairman of Christie’s, 1996-2001 The Oldie June 2021 15


She starred in Gigi, danced with Fred Astaire and acted opposite Cary Grant. Hugo Vickers meets the great actress as she turns 90

Thank heaven for Leslie Caron

L

eslie Caron turns 90 on 1st July. On a spring afternoon, I talked to her from the very room in Wiltshire, where, in the 1950s, the songs of Gigi (in particular The Night They Invented Champagne) were regularly played on my parents’ gramophone, long before I ever had a sip. Cecil Beaton dressed Leslie in Gigi (1958). ‘I was so fond of him and have such admiration for his behaviour, his huge talent and his discernment – he liked everything new, he was like a young person,’ she says. ‘He was the only designer I ever met who was there in the make-up room, saying “No, no. Take off that rouge.” ‘He just would not forgive any bad taste or vulgarity – would sit with the girls to stop them putting on too many eyelashes. He knew the girls never knew how to wear a hat! The hat was way back [to get seen] when it should be forward. Whenever people talk to me about Gigi, I always say that one of the most important actors in it is Cecil Beaton.’ When filming Gigi, she was a 26-year-old mother with an infant son, yet she carried off the part as a gamine 14-year-old. The costumes were made by Madame Karinska: ‘All the good theatre plays and films were being dressed by her. She had so much talent in interpreting sketches that Cecil trusted her. He went off on holiday with Greta Garbo. I was still feeding my little Christopher. My bosom was a little too voluptuous for a girl of 14 and I said to Madame Karinska, “Why don’t we have braids to keep this little gilet?” Otherwise I looked too maternal. We had military braids. I tried to explain to Cecil. He just clammed up – I had the 16 The Oldie June 2021

feeling that he didn’t quite know about the details.’ Alan Jay Lerner thought Gigi greater than My Fair Lady because it was filmed in Paris – in locations such as Maxim’s, the Palais de Glace and the Musée Jacquemart-André. When we were in the studio, ‘a little bit of Paris crept under the studio door’. ‘We did all the most important scenes outdoors. I remember being probably the only person in the world who walked on those red velvet banquettes [in Maxim’s] in my boots to reach my place, as it was so crowded.’ There was a scene with a cat, when she sang Say a Prayer for Me Tonight: ‘Poor cat – actually he hated being in the movie,’ she says. ‘They had to sedate him to the point that I had to keep his mouth closed. I gave the whole song holding his jaw, which was kind of upsetting for someone who loves cats. He was almost comatose.’ Leslie never met Colette, who wrote Gigi, but years later she converted – into an auberge − a mill in Villeneuve-surYonne, quite close to Colette’s village. ‘I used to send the customers to see her birth house.’ When Colette was a child, she begged for money for girls, pregnant out of wedlock, from the owners of the château at Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye. They were so mean that they turned Colette away. ‘Now every room has memorabilia

‘In a good mood, Cary was an entertainer. In a bad mood, there was thunder’

about Colette. Her voice can be heard in recordings. I thought, “Well done, Colette. You got the château now. Justice has been done.” ’ Leslie has had a diverse career in films. She was whisked to Hollywood in 1950 to play in An American in Paris (1951), through to films such as Is Paris Burning? (1966). Il padre di famiglia (1967) won the Prix de Rome, the Italian equivalent of an Academy Award: ‘I was very proud to be in that film. It was exactly the sort of thing I wanted to do. Once you’ve been a Hollywood star, it’s very difficult to move into something else.’ She was brought up in Paris during the German occupation. The scene when she tries to rescue her husband in Is Paris Burning? is what she had lived through: ‘Yes, there were real survivors with numbers written on their skin, looking the worse for wear, and I must admit I was profoundly upset by playing that scene. I wasn’t acting. I think I stayed in my hotel room for several days after that, trying to recuperate for having lived through this drama. ‘The director was very good. There were barking dogs and German soldiers dressed exactly like the ones I remembered. It revived the period in my mind. The actor who played my husband [Tony Taffin] wasn’t healthy – he was well known as an alcoholic – and he looked as though he had been tortured. He was well-cast.’ She was steeped in that fascinating post-war phase of Paris artistic life, training as a dancer with Russians such as Madame Olga Preobrajenska – ‘Madame Préo’: ‘Yes it really was a renaissance in everything: music, design, theatre


NEIL SPENCE

Caron today: ‘Dancing was fabulous with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly’

costumes, sets and choreography. Every ballet had four different sets, which was ridiculous. Nobody ever does that any more – even for plays. All that was so luscious, generous and magnificent. ‘In those days, there was a little nucleus of artists who were very close to each other. And the same people came to every dress rehearsal and gave their advice. Cocteau was one. Boris Kochno was artistic director. I had such admiration for him that I wore the same perfume for 30 years – Fracas by Robert Piguet. Very voluptuous – maybe too voluptuous for me. But I just adored the scent.’ And the great dancer Jean Babilée? ‘Well, Babilée – I never said this for all these years. But I fell madly in love with him, and I think he fell madly in love with me. But of course he had just been married the year before – so this is why I

went to America. I was grateful to have this offer – I didn’t know who Gene Kelly was and I had no intention of going into films, but my love for Babilée – I was very Catholic – it had to be broken. So [it was] Hollywood instead. Babilée was the greatest. He was a more remarkable dancer than Baryshnikov or Nureyev.’ Did she like Hollywood? ‘No. I did not. I thought Hollywood was unbelievably boring, if you want my real opinion. After you had visited the tar pits, there was nothing else to look at. There were no museums, no theatres. I had to go 20 kilometres to see films by Bergman or French films, and the only person who went there from Hollywood was Marlon Brando. It took a long time for foreign films to get into the Academy Awards. Eventually, Cannes became important and Hollywood realised there was an enormous public in Europe.’ It must have been a joy to know Christopher Isherwood:

‘Yes, it was our saving. Cecil [Beaton] introduced me to him. Christopher became one of my fathers, the other one being Jean Renoir. Christopher was very down-to-earth and simple. He had no sense of his own importance as a writer – very democratic.’ It must also have been a joy for Fred Astaire to have such a trained dancing partner for Daddy Long Legs (1955): ‘Dancing was fabulous with both Gene [Kelly] and Fred because they were both fabulous dancers. The style was very different. I was perfectly thrilled to be doing modern dancing and to dance to jazz. That amused me. But, in a way, I thought that Fred was closer to my personality – Gene had something a little more athletic and I didn’t go for athletic quality in dancing. Fred’s style was closer to what I understood.’ Later, she took part in The L-Shaped Room (1962). ‘Romulus Films decided to The Oldie June 2021 17


AF ARCHIVE/ALAMY

Left: With Louis Jourdan in Gigi (1958). Right: with Jeremy Irons in Damage (1992)

have a French girl play the part. The producer, Jimmy Woolf, was asked why he had chosen a French girl when the book was written for an English girl. “Well, I think she’ll be more sexy.” In those days, I think the general consensus was that French girls were sexy and English girls were not.’ She played opposite Tom Bell, who fell from grace at the Baftas, which were being presented by Prince Philip. Bell repeatedly shouted, ‘Give us a joke, Philip!’ ‘Prince Philip, very à propos, said, “If you wanted a joke, you should have hired a comedian.” Which had a thunder of applause. And poor Tom Bell never worked in films again. In those days, you simply couldn’t fool around. He was totally banished from films – because of that.’ I ventured four particular qualities that I thought made her a great star – ‘dancing, acting, being beautiful and then this wonderful voice…’ ‘Voice?’ ‘Yes. Unique, special, unusual… Maybe that sounds silly to you?’ ‘I have one friend who says that. But of course I cannot sing and I wish I could. I thought singing was the most thrilling thing you could possibly do. Once you have danced for ten or 20 years, you think, “I know something about that.” But singing is something that I could never conquer. I’m a thwarted opera singer. Not even modern; not even jazz singing. I couldn’t really. And you know why? It’s because the breathing is quite wrong. As a dancer, you have to hold your abdomen in, and so I was totally trained that way, and that’s why I couldn’t.’ She played opposite Cary Grant in Father Goose (1964). ‘Cary was fabulous. He was an entertainer when he was in a good mood, telling stories about his beginnings. In a bad mood, there was a thunder.’ 18 The Oldie June 2021

Evidently he liked to make her laugh during scenes, which wasted quite a bit of film. ‘In those days, I couldn’t keep a straight face. It was quite painful. He didn’t like his actresses to be caked with pancake or greasepaint. You can’t see emotion. The lights were so strong – the whole thing was quite artificial. It was difficult to show quick emotions. To this day, I don’t wear any at all and I think it’s the way to keep a good skin.’ Peter Hall was her second husband, having seen her as the Sphinx in the ballet La Rencontre. ‘It was as if a Renoir waif had strayed onto the stage and surprised us with her animal ferocity,’ he said. ‘Then I saw her films. I was half in love with her before I met her.’ He wrote, too, of the excitement of having a son and daughter, contrasting with the anxiety of ‘two hyperactive people leading diverse and demanding lives’. Leslie explains, ‘He was quite possessive and did not want me to work – even though I was asked to do films. He didn’t want to offer me plays and he broke a contract I had with Stratford, Ontario, and I was very eager to do a season because I thought this would be a good way for me to learn to play Shakespeare and to play classics, and to strengthen my voice. ‘Mind you, I had the children then. It would have been difficult, for three months in Stratford, Ontario, but, having been on the stage since the age of 14, I really could not just be a lady of the manor and prepare the flowers for the dinner. I was passionate

‘I’m not sure I can act any more because I am so upset by strong emotions’

about acting, and eventually that’s what broke us up. But every time I would see him, I had the same feeling of great interest for his intelligence, his talents, his charm. I never stopped loving him in a way.’ A later film was Damage (1992) with Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche, in which she played the dark heroine’s perceptive mother. She does not like playing hard women: ‘It upset me quite a bit. I’m not sure I can act any more because I am so upset by scenes that demand strong emotions or meanness. I get all vulnerable. I can’t see the news in the evening. I can’t see drama in the evening. I actually played my mother, who was in some ways a remarkable woman – in some ways, very difficult – and she had aspects like this character. But I did adore acting with Louis Malle. Louis Malle is so perceptive, a very finely tuned brain.’ I said I liked the scene in the car when she confronts Jeremy Irons. ‘Yes, I thought you would say that. There I was, sitting next to Jeremy, with this blinding yellow suit by Dior, and the cameraman said, “Listen, something has to be done. Jeremy is turning yellow.” So for the close-ups, I had to wear something not colourful. The colour bleeds. I played with a sort of scarf. The technical details are quite amusing.’ And what next? ‘Something really quite interesting. Dame Myra Hess, the great pianist, during the war was quite remarkable, giving free concerts, and the Nash Ensemble with Amelia Freedman wants me to introduce it. I thought at first she was going to give me a script but no – she wants my souvenirs of Paris during the Occupation. I have recited poetry with orchestras for her, about four times, with great pleasure. ‘That’s something I can do.’



For over 300 years, Italian painters produced the finest altarpieces in the world, says David Ekserdjian

Renaissance miracles M

ost art forms – like Miss Jean Brodie (and the rest of us) – have their primes. They may then stagger on, growing gradually more feeble, while still enjoying occasional highs that match their former glories, but their best days are behind them. Very occasionally, as with the epic poem, their reign can last for millennia. But as a rule, managing to hang in there for two or three hundred years is pretty good going. Take the symphony, which held sway from Haydn and Mozart in the second half of the 18th century until Sibelius and Vaughan Williams in the first half of the 20th. The heyday of the altarpiece lasted roughly from the late-13th century until the early-17th. It was above all an Italian triumph in the field of painting. No doubt I am a teeny bit biased, since I have a doorstop of a book coming out this month on the subject of the Italian renaissance altarpiece. But a handful of absolute masterpieces north of the Alps – the Van Eyck Ghent Altarpiece, Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece and one or two others – cannot begin to hold their own against the sheer abundance and variety of what Italy has to offer. That said, in the field of sculptural altarpieces – above all, in wood – northerners like Tilman Riemenschneider and Veit Stoss are streets ahead of the spaghetti-eating competition. The altarpiece’s religious function – to sit above the altar table and form a backdrop to the daily miracle of the mass – remains basically unchanged, even after the Council of Trent (1545-63). But, excitingly, both its format and style are 20 The Oldie June 2019

subject to extraordinary transformations over time. By 1300 or so, the grandest altarpieces tended to be elaborately compartmentalised – polyptych is the term used by art historians. That meant they could display a large cast of characters and/or a whole array of stories. The latter often came in the form of a kind of visual footnote, a predella, at the base of the main field. The whole was set against a gold-leaf background, presumably to evoke heaven. Within this broad conception, a combination of the simple physical scale of the various figures and their proximity to – or distance from – the centre made it very clear where they stood in the altarpiece’s hierarchy. Tellingly, at that early date, mere donors tend to be ant-like in their subordination. In the early-15th century, however, the rise of scientific perspective made two interlinked ideas – locating the figures within a believable threedimensional space and replacing the gold backdrop with a naturalistic one – all but irresistible. Regardless of whether the setting was predominantly architectural or outdoor, the holy personages truly seemed to inhabit this new world, and they too were incomparably more realistic in their appearance. Regardless of whom they represent within the fiction of the painting,

Dürer said of Giovanni Bellini, ‘He is very old and still the best in painting’

they were based on the observation of actual people. Over time, life drawing from the nude model was added to the repertoire, sometimes even when the final figure was to be clothed. What is more, very considerable numbers of preliminary drawings were commonly produced, not only to devise the poses of the actors but also to plan compositions. Consequently, the standard altarpiece type – which assembled a group of saints within a unified space around the Madonna and the Christ Child – had to be understood as representing a gathering beyond time, rather than as a painted snapshot of an actual event, since the protagonists had often lived centuries apart. At the same time, there was a gradual rise in the number of altarpieces given over to narratives as opposed to these iconic gatherings. As the 16th century progressed, more and more subjects from the New Testament and from the lives of a whole host of saints were explored. There is a tendency to refer to these works as narratives. To the extent to which that term conjures up notions of the passage of time and one-thing-after-another-ness, it is misleading. Almost without fail, what is shown is a frozen moment – even on occasion to the extent of the severed head of Saint John the Baptist being depicted in mid-air on its way to the ground. The most bizarre altarpieces are neither straightforwardly iconic nor purely narrative. They instead are the ones that in the renaissance tended to be called ‘mysteries’. They may focus on types of the Virgin, such as the Madonna of the Rosary or of the Immaculate Conception, or doctrinal


David Ekserdjian’s favourite altarpiece: Giovanni Bellini’s Virgin and Child with Four Saints (1505), San Zaccaria, Venice. The altar table is below

subjects, such as the Mystic Mill and the Mystic Wine Press. In the peculiarly gruesome latter, Christ is portrayed being crushed by the wine press and the streams of his blood are then collected, from the pool that receives them, into chalices. In all cases, the challenge was to retain the richness and complexity of the

polyptych within a single-field altarpiece. Artists demonstrated immense ingenuity in their endeavours to square that particular circle. They invented ways of compensating for the demise of the predella by siting its personnel either in the middle distance or at the base of the picture field in a kind of no-man’s-land between their world and ours.

Altarpieces were also works of art. Their creators – for all that this tends to be slightly forgotten – were often gleefully aware of their importance within the scheme of things. There is a hilarious inscription on an altarpiece by one of the looniest of the lot, a minor but compellingly unique artist called Niccolò Alunno. It names the late patron, a lady called Brisida. It adds that its artist is Niccolò Alunno, ‘the fine crown of his native city of Foligno’, before concluding, ‘But who, O reader, deserved more in your judgement, I ask, when Brisida gave the reason, he the hand?’ Perhaps in some parallel universe they broadcast a programme called Desert Island Altarpieces. In that case, I am happy not to live there, because choosing my eight favourites would be a hell of a job. Funnily enough, I wouldn’t find the ‘If you could keep just one’ element much of a problem. Whenever I go to Venice – and it has been a while – and however briefly I am there, I engage in a lagoon-based equivalent of throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain in Rome to guarantee my return. I make sure I pay my respects to Giovanni Bellini’s Virgin and Child with Four Saints in the church for which it was painted, San Zaccaria, handily close to Piazza San Marco. It is signed and dated 1505. Although there is no record of precisely when Giovanni was born (probably in the early1430s), we do know that, a year later, in 1506, the great Albrecht Dürer wrote home to Nuremberg and said of him, ‘He is very old and still the best in painting.’ Dürer knew a good thing when he saw one. In my experience, San Zaccaria is never exactly pullulating with other tourists – so I cannot recommend the pilgrimage too highly. David Ekserdjian’s The Italian Renaissance Altarpiece is published on 8th June (Yale University Press) The Oldie June 2019 21


Small World

Working from home – with my parents The trials of a call-centre job, with Mother and Father fighting in the next room jem clarke

STEVE WAY

Jem Clarke is in his very, very early fifties, is five foot zero inches tall and has never left the family home in Cleethorpes, which he still shares with his parents… Working from home with two elderly parents in the house is a bit like being in a lift with a wasp. The chances are that nothing bad will actually happen, but the underlying Hitchcockian tension that it might play havoc on the more nervous small intestine. The company I work for has done all it can to mitigate the tension, by recording a message on the phone lines: ‘Our friendly advisers are working from home – so you may hear unusual background noises such as pets, children or building work.’ But this does not cover the possibility of a parent shrieking, ‘Put a bloody battery in it and I wouldn’t need to shout, you old bint.’ Worse still, when manager Kyle (no last name) phoned me for a ‘getting to know you one-on-one’, I may have given him the impression that I live alone in a penthouse. Whenever Mount Mum-and-Dad erupts, I have to tell him the penthouse is well-appointed but with wafer-thin walls. The noises off are, I say, from a sweary-lipped fish-mongering couple from Dagenham in the adjoining luxury penthouse. Work is a mixed bag. As I started some weeks ago and know very little about my own job, the customers who phone for IT assistance often end up helping me with my IT. It turns out that, a bit like with grief, there are five stages to being one of my customers: rage, anger, denial, acceptance and then ringing back in the hope they get someone other than me. In case the reader thinks I’m suffering from low self-esteem, I can assure you that no one in my team knows enough actually to help the customers. Because a 22 The Oldie June 2021

lot of us come from business sectors impacted by COVID, my team is quite the International Brigade, comprising mainly croupiers, hotel night porters and baristas. My favourite team member is Taal – either the cleverest or the stupidest person I’ve ever worked with. When Manager Kyle chastens him for his figures from the previous day, Taal contemplates his answer with the world’s longest ‘Hmmmmmm’ – so long, pained and almost musical that I think he may be sitting on a toilet. He then explains, ‘You say I had a bad day – not my experience. No day, bad or good. You choose to dye the day with the colours of your mind, so why not decide it a good day, instead?’ Kyle says he will have to read through his guide on how to be an effective team leader and get back to him. The next day, Kyle asserts himself and confirms that Taal has now had two bad days. Taal answers, ‘I am a croupier. Croupier’s best work done at night. Daytime does not suit the croupier best.’ I am willing Kyle to explain that there’s no croupiering element to Taal’s call-centre role. But I think Kyle

is a people-pleaser rather than a croupier-dismisser. In a surprise twist, worthy of a sensationalist documentary on a streaming platform, it was Kyle who didn’t make it to the end of the week. Things went all Stalin. We were told by a new disembodied team-leader voice (Celia) that Kyle was no longer with the company and was not to be mentioned again. After this bumpy start, Celia turned out to be all sorts of fun and took us ‘off the phones’ to play a traditional icebreaker game, so she could get to know us. It was ‘two lies and one truth’, where each person gives three statements about themselves and other team members have to guess which one of the three is true. Unfortunately, many of the intricacies of the game were lost on my team – Jubira explained she likes telling the truth only and Campbell uttered in a union-breaking baritone, ‘Nay for me.’ In the abyss of silence, Taal bravely sparked up with ‘I go’ – followed by his habitual ‘Hmmm’. Then he began: ‘Two lies and truth. Hmmm, let me think… OK. Fact one – I am currently smoking cigar. Fact two – I am drinking whisky but not from a glass; from bottle. Fact three – I am watching pretty ladies on my television.’ Somewhat taken aback, Cynthia gamely ploughed on, guessing, ‘Well, there are two of those activities you wouldn’t be doing, I’d hope, during work time. So it must be that you are smoking a cigar.’ ‘No,’ said Taal, a master of sentence suspense. Then, after a pause, he explained, ‘All three – true!’ I fully expect that next week Taal will be promoted to middle-managementpsychopath level. Talking of which, I can hear Mother calling Father for tea, using the communication medium of platethrowing. I must intervene – she was a county-level discus thrower.



Robert Bathurst asks comedy greats what happens when they don’t get a laugh

Dying on stage – a survivor’s guide

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niversity College London Summer Ball, 1977 – the Cambridge Footlights were booked to do a midnight cabaret. We came from Cambridge dressed for a ball in black tie, finding the UCL students all in jeans. Off came the ties. Then we saw the poster. I wish I’d kept one. It read: ‘THE FABULOUS POODLES, THE CAMBRIDGE FOOTLIGHTS and THE JAM’. The Poodles, a rock band fronted by Ronnie Golden, were late – so we went on at 2am, the advertised time for the appearance of the Jam. Imagine the fans’ disappointment when, instead of Weller, Foxton and Buckler, on to the stage came … us. We lasted five minutes, got howled off – pelted off. One of our gang, Jimmy Mulville, took them on. ‘Look, if you don’t stop f***ing throwing stuff, we’ll f***ing –’ He never finished the sentence. Dying on stage is a hazard for any performer but, for Griff Rhys Jones, high art gives a measure of cowardly protection: ‘If you’re a low entertainer – low comedy – you go lower when you die. If you’re a high comedian with some intelligent subtext, if nobody laughs, you can walk off and say, “Well, at least the intelligent subtext worked.” But if you’re going on just to loon about and then nobody laughs … if you thought you started low, you have no idea how low you absolutely sink.’ Barry Cryer, The Oldie’s very own King of Comedy and master comedian at its 24 The Oldie June 2021

literary lunches, began his career at Soho’s Windmill Theatre: ‘I was bottom of the bill. Bruce Forsyth was top. The audience hadn’t come to see comedy; they’d come to see the nudes. I’d do my 12-minute act six times a day; I’d go on stage and the men would open newspapers. You learned to die with dignity; you learned to work with silence. We’d joke about it backstage. “How many laughs did you get today?” “Three? Oh boy!”’ ‘I died on my arse in Mumbai,’ said comedian Miles Jupp. ‘I was very unwell and doing a gig above a restaurant, getting little response. The rains started. There was just the sound of me talking and the rain hammering against the windows. I felt a long way from home.’ Jupp, a subtle and masterful manipulator of an audience, is an interesting case in how a performer copes with the pressure of going down the pan. He almost doesn’t understand the question when it’s put to him. Like many comedians, he seems to stand outside it and objectify it – almost enjoy it. He can sense an air of inevitability when things go wrong during his stand-up: ‘You don’t really notice it happening and then there’s suddenly this

‘I disobeyed one of my golden rules – never perform at a venue where there are sheep’

atmosphere of treacle. I think, “Well, if it’s going to be like that, I’m pretty sure there’s nothing I can do about it.”’ That, surely, is the epitome of nerve. Perhaps actors have it easy by comparison. Timothy Spall, who straddles so well both comedy and drama, recognises this: ‘You get people coming off stage, saying, “They’re not laughing but they are laughing internally; they’re trying not to laugh – we stunned them.” ‘No, no – if it’s a comedy and they’re not laughing, then it ain’t working. If you want an immediate example of failure, that’s it.’ Spall finds comedy more hazardous to play: ‘I find tragedy, and the more tragic and sadder the better, much more relaxing and less stressful.’ This is a running theme: Barry Cryer – ‘Comedy is the most naked part of our business’; Josie Lawrence – ‘It’s a much more serious business that the serious stuff’; Griff Rhys Jones – ‘You can feel mortally ashamed’. Josie Lawrence doesn’t call herself a comedian, but she’s one of the funniest and most skilful performers in the country. In addition to acting, she’s part of the improvisation group the Comedy


EVERETT COLLECTION INC/ALAMY

Keep on smiling: (from left) Kenneth Williams, Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith, Josie Lawrence, Barry Cryer, Miles Jupp, Rita Rudner

Store Players. Josie has faced rough houses: ‘Christmas gigs are the worst; there was one in the ’80s when the audience were given water pistols.’ To an outsider, she would appear bombproof, as if nothing fazed her. ‘It’s funny, because I’m not very confident in real life but, as I get older, I’m thinking, “Sod ’em.” If something goes wrong on stage, I just give myself a fearlessness. My brain clicks into “Now, what can we do?” There’s no embarrassment; the adrenalin kicks in. You go into a sort of zone – a dreamlike state.’ Miles Jupp in his early days put on a similar protective carapace when doing stand-up: ‘I imagined I was of a completely different physical type – it took the fear away from it.’ Nowadays, he says, the only way he changes character for a gig is by putting on a suit. Performers have to find strategies to cope with failure, but for theatre producers it can be nightmarish when their show ‘gets the bird’. Sir Michael Codron, for the last 65 years one of the most influential impresarios in the West End, has fought many battles, not least with a self-appointed group of Gallery First Nighters who would choose in

advance of the show whether to cheer or boo. Codron described them as ‘a fearsome group, mainly of elderly women and rather waspish gay men, all of deeply conservative taste’. Codron was standing outside the theatre before the opening of Ride a Cock Horse when one of this group came up to him and said, ‘Tonight we are booing’ – because an actress they liked hadn’t been cast in the show. ‘I had the Lord Chamberlain on the one hand and these people on the other, against progress – it was quite a constriction.’ Sir Michael’s friend Kenneth Williams told him that, at the press-night curtain call of Gentle Jack, he was standing next to Dame Edith Evans, who was basking in the applause – although Williams could hear rumblings from up in the gallery. ‘They’re cheering,’ said Evans triumphantly. ‘Don’t be a silly old fart,’ hissed Williams. ‘They’re booing.’ The American comedian Rita Rudner has for many years headlined a show in Las Vegas. She is married to one of my fellow casualties from the UCL Summer Ball, Martin Bergman. Her worst-ever gig was at Suffolk’s Latitude Festival.

‘I disobeyed one of my golden rules – never perform at a venue where there are sheep. I was in a muddy tent, after a comedian who’d done ten minutes about defecating into a bucket. As I began, the rock band in the next tent started to play at top volume. The 50 people in the mud with me were clearly wondering why I was there. So was I. I left.’ It strikes me from my discussions with performers that none of them takes disaster personally. ‘You need the skin of a rhino,’ says Rhys Jones. ‘The real secret to dying is to do it so much that you’ll just use it as a learning process. The language of performers is traditionally combative – “We murdered them; we slaughtered them” – which is understandable when you’re having to avoid the audience killing you.’ Miles Jupp, though, employs a surprisingly delicate metaphor for disaster: ‘When it goes really badly and then you do it again and it goes well, it’s like a palate-cleanser.’ Barry Cryer is less Epicurean when recalling tough gigs. ‘I never get depressed,’ says the great man. ‘I just keep going to see if I get better.’ And how. The Oldie June 2021 25


I was a teenage Marxist Bruce Anderson was bewitched by Marxism – until he saw the IRA at work in Northern Ireland

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pidemic is a useful term, and not only in medicine. An infection that strikes suddenly and induces panic: that is a good way of describing other, non-medical diseases. Today, we are in the grip of just such an epidemic: wokery. It too is inducing widespread panic while baffling many authorities who ought to know better. But we have been here before. I remember. Back in 1968, I helped to spread an earlier plague: Marxism which, like wokery, was an international phenomenon. I remained a Marxist until 1972. By coincidence, 1968/9 also saw a flu epidemic in the UK, and no one seemed to care. Most of the 30,000 fatalities were frail or elderly – or both. The rest of us just got on with life. In the case of adolescent Marxists like me, that often meant getting on with disturbing life. The outbreak of Marxism struck as suddenly as COVID or wokery. It too caught the grown-ups by surprise. Until that stage, Marxism had played only a peripheral part in British intellectual life. In France, it had come close to monopolising the social sciences. In the UK, though there were Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm, they never dominated their profession (nor, to be fair, did they try to). Equally, Marxism did not overwhelm university economics departments. At Cambridge, admittedly, the economics faculty was controlled by a rigid sect, certain its doctrines were incontrovertible, intolerant of all dissent – but they were not Marxists. They were Keynesians. As it happens, few of the noisy students could have stood up to much interrogation on the depth of their Marxist reading, but the dons, afflicted by academic honesty, often lacked the intellectual self-confidence to confront the young and, as Isaiah Berlin would have put it, ‘spot the bunk’. So why did we fall for the bunk? Different explanations apply to different

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countries. In America, it was Vietnam. You did not need to feel guilty about evading the draft if you could argue that the Viet Cong were justified in fighting against US imperialism. On the Continent, the social fissures of the war years were important. The young found it easy to convince themselves that established governments were illegitimate and that too many members of the ruling order had been complicit with fascism. In the UK, Marxism was linked with the cultural changes of the early Sixties; an era of satire, but no irony. Deference had fallen completely out of fashion and, with it, the notion that, with age, our elders might have acquired wisdom. Suddenly, there seemed to be no constraints. The young no longer felt that they were apprentice adults, condemned to a life of convention and conformity. ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.’ New freedoms were available, largely because of our parents’ efforts and sacrifices. During the so-called 13 wasted Tory years, from 1951 to 1964, living standards had doubled. Conscription had been abolished, and there was full employment. No one I knew at Cambridge worried about finding a job. Earlier generations had a sense of the precariousness of civilisation. It embarrasses me, a supposed historian, to admit that this basic insight had passed me by and that I was guilty of an intellectual bêtise on a par with believing that the world was flat.

I was not alone in my folly. I and my friends assumed that the world was perfectible. The selfishness and immorality of the capitalist system were the only obstacles to universal peace, freedom and prosperity. We denounced bourgeois society, while taking its creature comforts for granted. We were not pro-Soviet, especially after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, but all our emotional energy went into denouncing the US. The assumption was that as the Russians were at least working towards socialism, their hearts were in the right place. Hearts? Brezhnev? What cringe-making nonsense. There is only one way to explain all this: a millenarian religious cult. We pored over Marxist texts as if they were Holy Writ. We believed that this new faith had the answer to everything and that those who disagreed were either stupid or evil, or both. How did I come to see the error of my ways? There is a simple answer: Ulster. I took a small part in the civil-rights movement from 1968 to 1969 and instantly recognised that the IRA had nothing to do with freedom or indeed civil rights. Yet most of my English Marxist friends embraced it. If they were so wrong about that, why trust them on anything? I also realised that in aesthetic matters I was a conservative with a quasireligious attachment to old European high culture. That is a reasonable outlet for religious impulses. So I recanted, and have spent the last few decades trying to become a Tory. That means embracing scepticism. Perfection cannot be attained on the Right any more than on the Left. As government is concerned with the orderly management of original sin, religious intensity has no place in politics. Nor does cowardice in response to wokery. Our duty is to spot the bunk, denounce it and prevent the foolish young from doing too much damage before they grow up.



Virginia McKenna, the African queen At 90, the actress is still saving the wildlife she fell in love with, filming Born Free, over 50 years ago. By Roderick Gilchrist

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irginia McKenna celebrates her 90th birthday on 7th June. The Great and the Good – including Joanna Lumley, explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Carrie Symonds, the Prime Minister’s fiancée – are lobbying for her to be made a dame in recognition of her inspirational work for animal conservation. ‘Goodness,’ says a surprised Virginia. ‘I have no desire for personal honours. ‘I have been privileged to help wonderful animals and gained immense happiness when we’ve given them back their dignity and space in 28 The Oldie June 2021

their natural environment. That’s my reward.’ It’s 37 years since Virginia, her husband Bill Travers and their eldest son, Will, founded Zoo Check which became the animal charity Born Free. It took the name from her 1966 Oscarwinning film about Elsa, an orphaned lion cub successfully rehomed in the wild by Kenyan game wardens George and Joy Adamson, author of the original book Born Free (1960). Born Free’s hauntingly beautiful title song, sung by Matt Monro, helped boost our relationship with the natural world.

The first Zoo Check event was in a Chelsea pub in 1984, with an auction conducted by Ronnie Corbett, raising £2,000. Today it has 200 employees and the annual £5m income saves wild animals trapped in circuses and zoo cages. It rehouses them in sanctuaries on the African savanna. Born Free and Virginia have just had a significant success. After they lobbied for nearly 25 years, the South African government has just banned ‘canned hunting’ – shooting lions bred in captivity, released in pens behind wire. ‘It’s cruel and sickening,’ she says. ‘No animal should ever be killed for fun.’


PHOTOS ALAMY

At nearly 90, she’s still a bundle of energy. Her life, until COVID struck, was a whirlwind of flights around the globe to release tormented beasts from head-banging misery. She always wears the same kind of tan desert boots she wore in Born Free. Forced to self-isolate at her picturesque gamekeeper’s cottage in the Surrey Hills, she has a companion in the shape of Romy, a rescue Collie from Romania. (Sadly, Bill Travers died in 1994, aged 72.) ‘What I hope is that people confined to their homes during lockdown will now have some idea of what life behind bars must be like for bewildered animals, never to be free.’ I met Virginia when I was in Fleet Street, commissioning stories on her battle to remove an elephant, Pole Pole, with which she had made a film in Kenya, from London Zoo. When the elephant died, following a bungled attempt to move her to Whipsnade Zoo, Virginia telephoned me, sobbing uncontrollably. But it’s always the lions in Born Free that people ask her about. ‘The producers told us the lions were really just like pussy cats you could play with. They turned out to be ex-circus lionesses and far from welcoming. Then everything changed. Boy and Girl, two orphaned lion mascots from the Scots Guards in Nairobi, arrived and we became inseparable, playing football with them; even walking alone together in the African bush, which was heavenly.’ There was a dangerous moment when the lions showed they hadn’t read the script. Tracking gazelles, the lions went into hunting mode, tummies on the ground. Boy tapped the actors’ ankles – a sign that they too should crouch down. Suffering from sore knees, Virginia stood up and Boy, by now highly excited, took a flying leap at her, breaking her ankle. Virginia was driven to hospital in Nairobi. On her return to the set, she worried how the lions would greet her. ‘They both ran to the car,’ she recalls. ‘Boy pushed half his body through the car window and rubbed his beautiful head against me. So I knew we were still friends.’ Her cottage is crammed with paintings of lions and elephants and photos of her four children, 11 grandchildren and five greatgrandchildren. There is only one still from her distinguished film career, in which she starred in many heroic movies celebrating Britain’s wartime role: The Cruel Sea (1953), A Town Like Alice (1956) and Carve Her Name with Pride (1958) – about the heroic SOE agent Violette Szabo, GC.

That one photo, taken by Bill, is of a golden-haired Virginia, gazing in wonder at the young lion that played Elsa, the animal’s eyes alert for any sign of movement on the Kenyan savanna. Virginia and Bill were married to other people when they first met in a West End play. Virginia was married to actor Denholm Elliot from 1954 to 1957, but they divorced after this coup de foudre. Virginia – always Ginny to her friends – regularly lays flowers on Bill’s grave at her local church and has arranged to be buried in the same grave. ‘I believe in the afterlife – the life of the spirit – and know we will be together again,’ she says. Grey curls fall softly over chiselled cheekbones today; the luminous beauty that captivated audiences remains. She laughs when I remind her that a junior

Virginia & Bill Travers in Born Free (1966); with Yul Brynner, The King and I (1979); Peter Finch, A Town Like Alice (1956)

officer in The Cruel Sea described her as ‘the glamourpuss in Operations’. But she really was a Picturegoer pin-up. She says it’s been a full and lucky life – and she reveals just how lucky. She was nine –during the war – when her mother, an accomplished pianist, took her to safety in South Africa. ‘We were in a convoy of five ships leaving Liverpool for Cape Town,’ she says. ‘We were the last, delayed by an air raid. The other four ships were torpedoed and sank in the Atlantic. We saw the debris floating in the water. I see it still. For the mothers on the ship it was awful. They really felt what all those deaths, especially of the children, meant.’ In her movie career, Virginia starred with many of Hollywood’s biggest names. The studios saw her as a natural successor to Deborah Kerr, but life in La La Land was not for her. She is discreet about the peccadillos of her fellow stars. But she recalls appearing with Yul Brynner in The King and I at the Palladium and helping him to dance on one leg, because of a bad injury he had as a trapeze artist before he was famous. ‘I had to swish my skirt vigorously around him, so the audience wouldn’t notice,’ she remembers. ‘Yul hated whistling because to him it was bad luck. Someone was whistling when he had his fall. If he heard whistling, all the rehearsals were stopped until the whistler was silenced.’ Her gentle, English rose countenance made for perfect casting as the governess. But it belies a lion’s heart. Several years ago, I flew with her from Monaco to South Africa’s Eastern Cape, with brother and sister leopards in the hold. She’d battled for years to release them from a zoo set into the cliff below Prince Rainier’s palace in Monaco. Their cramped cage overlooked superyachts in the harbour and the Monte Carlo Casino. Despite constant rejection, she never gave up, persuading Prince Albert, when he came to the throne, to transfer the leopards to a Born Free sanctuary. Virginia says her love affair with lions began when she was five and friends came to tea at her parents’ Hampstead home. She was always asked to take off her favourite outfit, a children’s green bus-conductor’s uniform, and put on her best party dress. ‘Then I was wheeled on to recite Albert and the Lion, the old Stanley Holloway music-hall song, where the lion swallows the little boy after he’s stuck a stick in its ear. I hated having to take off my conductor’s uniform but loved to perform the poem. ‘I think it all started there.’ The Oldie June 2021 29


As hot as a Qantas hostie* Whacko-the-diddle-oh! Barry Humphries loves a new book about his native tongue and its rude expressions

NICK GARLAND

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t began when I strained the potatoes. When I was very young, I once excused myself from the dinner table with the polite announcement that I was ‘just off to strain the potatoes’. When I returned from the bathroom, my mother was still berating my poor father. ‘Where would Barry pick up things like that, Eric? Probably from one of your rough men.’ She added, ‘You should never taken him to those jobs of yours. Who knows what language he’ll pick up!’ My father was a successful builder of nice houses for the well-to-do, and I loved to accompany him to the building sites and talk to the workmen, Pat Bagot, Alec Gibson and Arthur Gallagher. My father wore a grey, chalk-stripe, double-breasted suit, a tie from Henry Buck and an English trilby, while the men wore overalls, singlets and cementspattered boots. When he talked to the men, my father’s voice changed, and he once said ‘bloody’, which in those far-off days was a swearword. Certainly not a word he used at home. But, apart from those early encounters with the proletariat, and in the words of that poem by my late father-in-law, Stephen Spender, ‘My parents kept me from boys who were rough.’ I was always aware, however, that there was a gulf between us and them; between nice people and common people, between those who strained the potatoes and those who washed their hands. It was my introduction to the vernacular. At my Melbourne Church of England grammar school, a provincial parody of

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its English prototype, I joined the debating society. At an early gathering, I had to uphold the contention ‘Slang is detrimental to the language.’ I was not convincing. I liked the forbidden vernacular; the language we never spoke at home. I began to jot down some of those words and phrases my father’s men used, and words I had overheard at school, in the street or over our back fence, where, owing to some municipal error of planning, a common family lived, if not for long. In my late teens, I began to collect slang dictionaries and, in particular, lexicons of Australian slang. An early purchase, and a book I still own despite the depredations of time, travel, and multiple divorce, is Cornelius Crowe’s The Australian Slang Dictionary, containing the Words and Phrases of the Thieving Fraternity, published in Melbourne in 1895. This small volume in pink wrappers was intended for use by the police in order that they might, when furtively eavesdropping in pubs and brothels, understand what that villainous underclass was plotting. In the sixties in London, I knew a very old Jewish artist called Horace Brodzky who had lived in Melbourne before the First World War. He told me that in the first decade of the 20th century, respectable citizens who worked and shopped in salubrious Collins Street would never venture two blocks east to raffish Burke Street, where its denizens spoke an entirely different language. A mere half a block further east were the brothels and the Chinese. Now there is a new book about our colloquial language: Rooted, by Amanda

Laugesen. It sits on my lexicography shelf between Digger Dialects and Sidney Baker’s Australian Language. There have been many dictionaries of Australian slang since Cornelius Crowe first helped the police with their enquiries, some of them drily academic, others whimsical and a few slightly apologetic, and this is the best. I like it chiefly because it says nice things about me. Name a better criterion. It’s a history of ‘bad language’, which is just language in a process of growth. ‘Bloody’ has been called ‘the great Australian adjective’, and I had heard it on building sites. What is still coyly called ‘the F word’ might have been scrawled on fences, but I encountered the word in its full and expressive glory only during National Service, where it seemed to be the only word in the vocabulary of the tyrannical Regulars. An old girlfriend of mine called Aviva hated the F word. ‘That’s bedroom talk!’ she protested. The vocabulary of sexual desire in Australia is rich and voluminous. There are many words describing the closest of human intimacies, some surprisingly brutal and even, let it be said, vulgar. The most popular and frequently used epithets for women are ‘hornbags’ and ‘ceiling inspectors’, which betray a slight hint of misogyny. Men of ambiguous or unorthodox sexuality are, not seldom, known as ‘shirtlifters’ and ‘pillow-biters’. The term ‘shirtlifter’ was conveyed to me by ‘Shearer Bill’ at a Sydney AA meeting and it affectionately evokes a fastidious encounter. The word is also assonant with the traditional term ‘poofter’. ‘Pillow-biter’ was invented by my


friend Bruce after the much-publicised incident when the Right Honourable Jeremy Thorpe MP enjoined Norman Scott, who was experiencing some initial discomfort from unlawful penetration, to ‘bite the pillow’ during congress. In some quarters of Sydney, no pillow goes unbitten. All these words should be employed respectfully and responsibly, lest they alert the ever-vigilant PC lynch mob. My great opportunity came when Peter Cook, the famous wag, asked me and the Kiwi artist Nicholas Garland to create a comic strip for Private Eye, a periodical still published today. Barry McKenzie was Cook’s name for the protagonist, and we were to depict him stumbling though the moral quicksand of ‘Swinging London’. In writing the speech balloons, I plundered every variety of Australian slang I knew or imagined. The result was a curdled pastiche; a synthetic speech quite unlike contemporary usage in Sydney (Barry McKenzie’s city – I wasn’t going to drag my home town into this!) But it caught on. When a chap from Ballarat Grammar had a skinful, he told me that there was a good chance he might ‘chunder’ later on. It was an expression known only to a few intemperate schoolboys, but I wanted to popularise this onomatopoeic word! So Barry McKenzie became regularly incontinent. He had heard, moreover, that a certain type of lass, usually from a broken home, ‘banged like a shithouse door in a gale’. It was a resonant phrase, firmly in the Australian antiromantic tradition.

Once, in my student days, I heard that terrible word ‘shithouse’. In an Italian restaurant, an intoxicated woman rose unsteadily from her table and stridently apostrophised the waiter. ‘This spaghetti is shithouse!’ she proclaimed, before being escorted out by her shamefaced husband. It is still a word, once descriptive of a mephitic backyard shed, which might be better employed in the vocabulary of highbrow criticism. Few would dispute that the total oeuvre of Cy Twombly is shithouse, or that the quality of the murky and indecipherable photographic reproductions in recent publications of Weidenfeld & Nicolson were also slovenly and pretty shithouse. And there would be universal agreement were the epithet to be applied to the ‘noncontextual’ soundtrack to a recent television adaptation of a novel by Nancy Mitford. When the Barry McKenzie strip became a film in the early seventies, it elicited howls of opprobrium from Australian critics. Bruce Beresford, the director, and I were excoriated for exhibiting a gross travesty of the dignified Australian character. ‘We’re not like that!’ my gravely maligned countrymen cried with one voice. It was the same when Sir Les Patterson first appeared in 1975. I was branded as unpatriotic, almost a traitor, and a lawyer called Turnbull – later to hold the highest office in the land – said at a press conference, ‘Barry Humphries is guilty of caricaturing and denigrating his own country in a pretty gross and sickening way.’ Recently, members of Mr Turnbull’s own party were reported to have held sex orgies in the

Barry McKenzie’s Australian Glossary apples, to be To be OK basically The most popular word in Australian speech since ‘hopefully’ big spit, to go the To hurl, chunder or play the whale bonzer (see under whacko-thediddle-oh) Beaut, extra grouse and fan-bloody-tastic Captain Cook, to take a To take a dekko, to look dip the wick, to To feature or exercise the ferret Fosters A modest Melbourne brewery catapulted to fame by Barry McKenzie’s tireless and inexplicably unremunerated promotion grope, going the An Australian caress kangaroo valley Earl’s Court, west London. A popular destination for newly arrived Australians in the 1960s neck oil Whisky overseas-based (Oz journalese) traitor pom syn. pommy bastard English person point Percy at the porcelain, to To drain the dragon *Qantas hostie A desirable sexual partner rudie A solecism sheets, to christen the To bring an undesirable, involuntary ending to a convivial Australian evening sky pilot Clergyman strides Daks Technicolor yawn Liquid laugh whacko-the-diddle-oh (see under bonzer) A universal Australian expression of jubilation xenophobia A love of Australia This selection is from Barry McKenzie’s Glossary, published in the last century

ladies’ lavatory at Parliament House. Conduct beyond the wildest dreams of Sir Les. We Aussies have Caliban’s reluctance to glance, however feelingly, at our own image. In 1972, as we took off to London to film the first McKenzie movie, a senior accountant from the Australian Film Commission ran across the tarmac to have a final word with me. ‘I hope there won’t be too many colloquialisms in this fillum, Barry,’ he plaintively besought me. Rooted: An Australian History of Bad Language by Amanda Laugesen (New South Publishing) is out now The Oldie June 2021 31



Thrill of le chase As Royal Ascot returns, French poet Théophile Gautier (1811-72) recalls the same enchanting meeting in 1849

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here was racing that day at Ascot, London’s Chantilly, and all else gives way to that great national source of pleasure. It’s an occasion when the snows of English coldness melt and, seeing their furious animation, you wouldn’t say you were among the most phlegmatic people in the world. Horses and ships alone can impassion the British people, and whoever has not observed the English at sea and on the turf does not know them. They are basically seamen and stablemen, two aptitudes that do not seem to go together, and which perhaps share secretly the same aim – locomotion. The French walk on the spot, moving a lot without going anywhere; the English fly like cannonballs, and if spleen gets up behind them in the saddle it must get a dreadful shaking. Throughout the period of the races there is an unending, Longchamps-like succession of carriages, diligences, omnibuses, charabancs, vehicles of all sorts – truly unimaginable. We stopped continually at some tavern to give the horses a drink and a breather, and also for ourselves to eat and drink. An Englishman absorbs a truly astonishing amount of food and drink: sandwiches, ham, pastry, ale, porter, soda-water, sherry, port, brandy, claret, champagne … he is always swallowing something. However, contrary to the cartoon portrayals in light theatre and to the caricatures that show them as elephantine in size and shape, one sees very few fat Englishmen: the climate, tea, cayenne pepper and calomel are all against it. The turf at Ascot is not flat like those of the Champ de Mars or Chantilly: the ground is quite undulating and the grass fine and short. Along the rail are stands, the one for the Queen and the fashionable public; then wooden or canvas sheds, bearing those signs in huge lettering that the English like so much. The unhitched carriages are drawn up in lines with everyone standing on the

Victorian day at the races: Royal Ascot by Gustave Wertheimer (1847-1902)

top deck; the women are splendidly attired, in shot-silk dresses with furbelows, fringed parasols, hats of fresh, vivid colours. The Queen’s equipages, driven by jockeys in red and gold tunics, proceed along the racetrack to satisfy the enthusiasm of the population, who cry, ‘Hurrah!’ But now the signal has been given; they’re off! We could give you the horses’ names, for we have with us Ascot Heath Races – Oxley’s Authentic Card. But French readers would probably not be interested. So we’ll confine ourselves to a general impression. The jockeys’ tunics, on the furthest edge of the course as it dips away, are no more than poppies, cornflowers and anemones borne away on the wind. The horses are bunched at first and then string out. Some take the lead; the others stay behind. This one gets on the rails; that one drifts out; they’re at the third bend – ‘Hurrah! Hurrah!’ A great, universal shout, rising at once from all throats, resounds like thunder and seems to give wings to the leading horse. The black horse has won – hurrah!

He is brought before the Queen’s box: her pink hat is seen to bob as she honours with a glance the noble animal with powerful legs and trembling nostrils which has just caused thousands of guineas to be won and lost. Between races there is eating and drinking. The table is laid on the carriage roofs; corks from bottles of champagne, soda water and Scottish ale bombard the sky; it’s like a fusillade. Venison pies are torn open; smoked tongue is swallowed, York hams and mutton pies are cut into, and all those fine English teeth, white, long, sharp as steel blades, are buried in pink meat. Another race starts: knives and incisors stop work for a moment, and then set to again. The gypsies, with orange-brown skin and blue star-spangled dresses like the gitanas of the Albaycin, wander among the carriages, playing tambourines and telling fortunes. And you can see the actual sights represented on those English sporting prints, with cherry-red horses, emerald fields and daffodil-yellow carriages – so unbelievably bright and yet so real – which, when you see them exhibited at Rittner & Goupil’s, make you doubt English art, and which a trip to Ascot shows to be perfectly justified. With each winner, clouds of pigeons rise in all directions, carrying the race result to the towns of England; for these races are a kind of roulette and a bank. Instead of betting on red or black, one bets on Xanthippe or Gillflower, or any other horse shown in the studbook. When the racing finishes, at about four o’clock, all the equipages, diligences and omnibuses, almost all driven four-in-hand, hurtle towards London in a joyous confusion which would be not without danger, were the coachmen not wonderfully skilled – and the more careful, the drunker they are. Royal Ascot takes place from 15th to 19th June The Oldie June 2021 33


His amoral wife made the jealous writer think sex was a tragedy. By Frances Wilson

Sex-mad DH Lawrence

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n his poem Tortoise Shout, D H Lawrence describes tortoise sex from the perspective of the male. ‘Mounted and tense’, as though nailed to the cross, he ‘cleaves behind the hovel wall of the dense female’ and, with his wrinkled neck and long limbs vulnerably ‘extruded’, curves his ‘deep, secret, all-penetrating tail’ beneath her carapace ‘’til suddenly, in the spasm of coition, tupping like a jerking leap, and oh!’ It is the only description I know of tortoise orgasm. Lawrence liked tortoises, but this poem is about himself and not only because he and his wife also carried their homes upon their backs (the Lawrences never stayed put for more than a few months). The Lawrentian heroes who strut through his novels, like Birkin in Women in Love or Mellors in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, are domineering sex gods but, in Tortoise Shout, the fragile party is the male of the species, smaller than the female and impaled upon her like a martyr. Forget the ‘priest of love’ of the Ken Russell films, where Alan Bates plunges his tongue into the flesh of a fig while eyeballing Eleanor Bron: Lawrence in the sack was a beast of burden. Fewer writers have been as misunderstood as D H Lawrence, long considered the Richard Desmond of the literary world. The Rainbow, published in 1915, was not only banned for obscenity: 1,011 copies were burned by a hangman outside the Royal Exchange. Where, you might wonder, are the novel’s juicy bits? Even the court prosecutor, Sir Herbert Muskett, admitted they were hard to locate. ‘Although there might not be an obscene word to be found in the book,’

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Muskett explained, ‘it was in fact a mass of obscenity of thought, idea and action.’ Fifty years later, it was Lawrence who, as Larkin put it, invented sexual intercourse, which ‘began in 1963 … between the end of the “Chatterley” ban and the Beatles’ first LP’. So what exactly did Lawrence have to tell us? Like many teenagers, I assumed that his books were an upmarket version of Cosmopolitan, in which I would learn where to find my G-spot. My mother’s Lawrence-loathing suggested I was right: he was, she scoffed, humourless about sex. ‘All those rippling wombs and quivering loins and singing hymns to each other’s pubic hairs,’ she used to say, before quoting with derision the passage where Lady Chatterley has an orgasm: ‘There awoke in her new, strange thrills rippling inside her. Rippling, rippling, rippling, like a flapping overlapping of soft flames’. Why should sex be funny, I wondered? And, more importantly, how could I too get that rippling feeling? But, beyond his reverence for bodies, Lawrence had very little to reveal about the nuts and bolts of intercourse. In fact, he made it way more complicated than it already was: as a sex manual, the works of D H Lawrence were mighty confusing. Why, for example, in Women in Love, did Ursula and Birkin have the ‘right’ kind of sex while Gudrun and Gerald had the ‘wrong’ kind? What was the difference between what they were doing? Did Lawrence think it was wrong to have sex without love, or wrong to have love without sex? And if bodies were all good and minds were all bad, how come his own whisker-thin and wheezing body was so evidently failing him?

Lawrence, who contracted TB in his youth and died from it, aged 44, in 1930, was at the mercy of his body all his life. What about homosexuality: was that a good or a bad thing? On the one hand, Lawrence liked a bit of male-on-male body surfing: take Birkin and Gerald (AKA Alan Bates and Oliver Reed) wrestling naked by the fire, driving deeper and deeper into each other, and that fine description in The White Peacock of Cyril and George drying each other after a swim: ‘To get a better grip of me, he put his arm around me and pressed me against him, and the sweetness of the touch of our naked bodies against the other was superb.’ On the other hand, homosexuality was the most repellent of all possible things; the place where madness lay. Witness the account in Lawrence’s letters of the visit to Cambridge where he met Maynard Keynes. As he clocked that Keynes was queer, ‘A knowledge passed into me, which has been like a little madness to me ever since. And it was carried along with the most dreadful sense of repulsiveness – something like carrion


– a vulture gives me the same feeling.’ Lawrence, I now understand, lived inside his contradictions and believed, as did William Blake, that there is no progress without contraries. The warring of opposites began in his childhood: his mother, a socially ambitious puritan, was all mind and his father, an illiterate coal miner, all body, and Lawrence carried their differences into his own marriage, choosing a wife who was so preoccupied with physical pleasure that she seemed not to have a mind at all. The daughter of a Prussian aristocrat, Frieda von Richthofen was amoral, promiscuous, and plump as a Christmas pudding. She and Lawrence met in March 1912 when he was invited by her husband, Ernest Weekley, Lawrence’s former professor, to Sunday lunch. Lawrence had been struggling to find a girl who would sleep with him without what he called ‘the dirty coin of marriage’ and here, on the doorstep of this house in a Nottingham suburb, was his answer. Brenda Maddox suggests in her biography that Frieda took Lawrence straight to bed on that day, which is typical of the tosh that is written about him. Apart from the logistics of penetrating your host’s wife while your host is carving the beef, there is the fact that Lawrence took sex very, very

D H Lawrence. Below: his wife, Frieda von Richthofen, ‘promiscuous and plump as a Christmas pudding’

seriously and almost never acted on instinct. Which was of course another contradiction, because his entire philosophy was based on a belief in the instincts. Five years older than Lawrence, Frieda was a 31-year-old mother-of-three living a secret double life. In England, she was a respectable wife who took tea with other respectable wives, but in Germany, where she went annually to visit her family, Frieda was the definition

of sexual freedom. Her current lover was serving a jail sentence in Zurich for bombing a police station and her previous lover, whom she shared with her sister, was hiding in an insane asylum to avoid arrest for assisting in a suicide. Within weeks of meeting, Frieda and Lawrence had run away to Germany. As Lawrence’s wife, Frieda continued to shag whomever she felt like shagging, including a handsome 20-year-old who had her in a hay hut when she and Lawrence were on their honeymoon. And Lawrence did his best to accommodate her because Frieda, they both believed, was ‘life’ itself and there was no stopping ‘life’, unless of course you wanted to be ‘anti-life’ like the husband she had just left. Lawrence’s genius as a writer, I soon realised, lay in his forensic descriptions of sexual jealousy. It seems likely that Lawrence became impotent, which was a tragedy for a man who believed in the power of the phallus. But sex was, for Lawrence, a form of tragedy and this is what we hear in Tortoise Shout. The tortoise, in his ecstasy, is the loneliest creature in the world. Frances Wilson’s Burning Man: The Ascent of D H Lawrence (Bloomsbury) is out now The Oldie June 2021 35


History hasn’t been kind to Jennie Churchill, who died 100 years ago. But the New Yorker was her son’s greatest influence. By Anne Sebba

Churchill’s mommie dearest

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ennie Churchill, Winston’s American mother, died shockingly prematurely 100 years ago this month, on 29th June 1921, after a fall downstairs. She was 67 and in the prime of life, newly married to a man 20 years younger and had finally found a way of earning money, one of her lifelong preoccupations. But how many people today, even those who idolise the man they consider Britain’s greatest prime minister and saviour of the nation from Nazi Germany, know who she was? If they know anything about her, she is often maligned as a woman who had 200 lovers – a suspiciously round number, according to Churchill’s biographer Roy Jenkins – or a woman with a snake tattoo on her wrist (unproven). The big question is: how important was her American influence on her son? Even though Jennie died almost 20 years before her older son took the top job, it was Jennie who instilled in him an unwavering belief in his destiny. Jennie Jerome was the favoured second daughter of the New York stock speculator, entrepreneur and racecourse owner Leonard Jerome, who made and lost several fortunes in the wake of the American Civil War. Born in Cobble Hill, New York, she was educated mostly in Paris and, by the time she came to London, was quite a catch: a highly accomplished pianist, a well-read, fluent French-speaker and a beautiful woman who had learned to dress herself in gowns from M Worth. Her teenage years in the French capital had also taught her to behave with the discretion of a true Parisienne, a mixture of attributes shared by few

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young English girls at the time. She was one of the first so-called dollar princesses (although in Jennie’s case there were not many dollars and she never became a princess): women whose new money was meant to store up dilapidated old British estates. These Anglo-American alliances (richly caricatured in Downton Abbey) have left a long shadow. There was widespread ignorance about American women, as well as jealousy – mostly they had had a far superior education to that of their English aristocratic counterparts who were lucky, if they had a brother, to have had just the rudiments. The American habits and manners were described as ‘something between a Red Indian and a Gaiety Girl. Anything of an outlandish nature might be expected of her.’ They were often brash and overtly sexy (or, in contemporary terms, ‘bursting with snap’). Jennie met Lord Randolph Churchill at Cowes on the Isle of Wight. After a whirlwind romance, the pair were

Jennie (1854-1921) and Winston, Earl’s Court Armada Day exhibition, 1912

married in a hurry in Paris in April 1874, one day after Jerome had sent the dowry. Winston was born seven months later. When Lord Randolph died (probably of syphilis) in January 1895, aged only 45, Winston was a 20-year-old military cadet who had done little to indicate a great future. Jennie immediately decided that, rather than live as a disappointed widow for the rest of her life, she was going to turn her adored first-born into the success she had once hoped her husband, Chancellor of the Exchequer for four months in 1886, would be − and she used every means at her disposal. ‘All my ambitions are centred in you,’ she wrote to Winston within months of his father’s death. And indeed they were, arguably to the detriment of her younger son, Jack. As Winston wrote to her, ‘It is a pushing age and we must shove with the rest.’ She sent him important books to read, became his unofficial literary agent, social secretary and networker and, with great prescience, paid the fare, which she could ill-afford, for him to travel to Havana. There he joined Spanish troops involved in crushing a revolt and wrote about his experiences in the Daily Graphic, signed with his initials, WSC. On his way out there, Jennie arranged for him to stop in New York to meet William Bourke Cockran, her former lover. Cockran, an Irish-born Democrat, became a lifelong inspiration, mentor and father figure, treating Winston as the son he never had. Studying Cockran’s speeches helped Winston become an orator – such a critical part of his wartime success. After five years in the army, Winston turned to politics and writing, working


PHOTOS ALAMY

‘All my ambitions are centred on you’: Jennie’s words to her oldest son, 1895

briefly alongside his mother on a magazine they founded together, the Anglo-Saxon Review. He became Home Secretary in 1910 – not a successful year for him, as he faced rioting coal miners in Tonypandy and revolutionaries in Sidney Street, Stepney, and opposed suffragettes as ‘the shrieking sisterhood’. In 1915, after his devastating debacle over the Dardanelles, when more than 115,000 British and Dominion troops were killed, his wife Clemmie said she thought Winston ‘would die of grief’. It was Jennie who went to comfort him, reminding him, as he battled his famous black dog, ‘Remember you are destined for greater things … I am a great believer in your star.’ But his star was in decline during the

interwar period, which he described as his wilderness years. Nonetheless, in 1940, aged 65, he became Prime Minister, having convinced himself and the British public he could undertake the task of defeating Hitler – and that this was in a sense his birthright. Through his father, he was descended from the Duke of Marlborough and had the victorious 1704 Battle of Blenheim in his genes. But it was Jennie, who probably had Native American ancestry through her mother’s line, who made him understand it was his American ties of blood that could help in the crucial fight to persuade US President Franklin Roosevelt to join the Allies in the fight against Hitler. When he addressed a Joint Session of

Congress in December 1941, he specifically and poetically invoked his mother’s memory, ‘cherished across the vale of years’. And yet history has not been kind to Jennie, often criticised as a bad mother. Jennie was, in my view, not only the mother Winston needed: as a diary for 1882 (which has recently come into the possession of Churchill College Archives) shows, she took a much more active part in her young son’s education than was previously thought. She took him to the theatre and taught him to paint at a time when mothers of her class were expected to leave all that to a nanny. Jennie, always glamorous and risqué, has been accused of extravagance but she tried, after becoming a widow, to earn a living in various unsuccessful ways. Her play His Borrowed Plumes lost her not only money but also a husband – as George Cornwallis-West (Jennie’s husband from 1900 to 1914) married the leading lady, Mrs Patrick Campbell. Finally, once married, in 1918, for the third time, to the handsome but impecunious Montagu Porch, she discovered that, by using her innate good taste and style, she could buy and redecorate houses – and then sell them for a profit. Becoming an interior designer before the term was invented involved trips to Italy to buy unusual fabrics and furnishings. On one such trip, she also bought some high-heeled shoes. Staying with a friend in the country, she forgot to ask the maid to score the soles, slipped and fell downstairs. Her sprained ankle turned into gangrene and she had to have her lower leg amputated. A few days later, she suffered a sudden haemorrhage and died. Winston rushed through the streets, in his pyjamas, to be at her side. Throughout her life, Jennie had been the biggest single influence on Winston. They wrote to each other constantly, and advised, encouraged and supported each other. They were deeply and emotionally involved in each other’s lives, even at times of national crisis. To mark the centenary of Jennie Churchill’s death, it is time to re-examine the rich and exuberant legacy of this American woman who gave Britain arguably its greatest ever war-leader. Anne Sebba is author of Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) The Oldie June 2021 37


Town Mouse

The ultimate Roman holiday – for mice tom hodgkinson

In 30 BC, Horace, the Dr Johnson of the Augustan age, wrote the parable of the town mouse and the country mouse. Authors in those days did not attempt to be ‘original’ – the fable had been around for a long time before. Horace introduces it as ‘an old wives’ tale’. The town mouse is devoted to activity, sociability and luxury, while the country mouse lives a life of genteel poverty, solitude and quiet reflection. For Horace, the story is a warning that wealth, which so many of us desire, has its own stresses. He was an Epicurean by philosophy. He praised the quiet and simple life, though, in paradoxical fashion, he also had a busy career in Roman politics. The country mouse is a sort of parsimonious hermit: ‘He lived frugally, and was careful.’ His mate the town mouse goes to visit him and is appalled by the miserable fare he is offered – raisins, oats and a piece of nibbled bacon. This reminds me of the few occasions when my metropolitan mother would visit me when I was a country mouse. She couldn’t understand why we chose to 38 The Oldie June 2021

subsist on nettle soup and home-made bread. She reminded me that there were now supermarkets, where we could buy much better soup and bread pre-made by an expert. She would also say, ‘I don’t like mud. I don’t like it!’ Her feeling was that cities had successfully got rid of mud, so why not live in one? In the Horace passage, the town mouse puts forward the hedonistic, Elton-John-style, materialist philosophy ‘Live happily, good friend, while you may, surrounded by joyful things.’ It’s the same approach to life expressed in that rather horrific credit-card slogan ‘Don’t put it off – put it on!’ Live for the moment and hang the expense. The two mice hotfoot it to the city, sneak into a grand house and sit down to feast on the fabulous remains of a grand dinner party. All is going well until their sumptuous meal is interrupted by ‘the barking of Molossian hounds’. This terrifying noise is enough for the country mouse to renounce the city life on the spot and run back to the safety of his ‘woodland hole’. Molossian hounds were a well-known breed of fearsome

mastiffs in ancient Greece. Today’s equivalent would be bull terriers. But clearly the hounds here are metaphorical and represent the cares of the city. The same point is explored by Petrarch in his 1346 book, De Vita Solitaria (On the Solitary Life). The city dweller, says Petrarch – let’s imagine some sort of greedy Mayfair financier or hedge-fund guy, à la Crispin Odey or Lex Greensill – is full of anxiety. ‘He awakes in the middle of the night, his sleep interrupted by the cares or cries of his clients.’ Then this wretched character goes to work. ‘He settles his body to the miserable bench’ – ‘bench’ in Italian being banco, the origin of ‘bank’ – ‘and applies his mind to falsehood. On treachery, his mind is wholly fixed – whether he meditates driving a corrupt bargain, betraying his friend or his ward, [or] assailing with seductions his neighbour’s wife.’ This terrible specimen of Renaissance humanity is compared with the man of leisure who ‘awakes in a happy mood’. He looks up to the starry heavens and ‘turns immediately to the study of some honest and agreeable lesson’. The bustling city man is forced to spend his day in the courts, while the ‘retired man, with store of leisure and calm, goes blithely into a nearby wood and enters joyfully upon the propitious threshold of a serene day’. Horace and Petrarch are agreed, then: the quiet life is infinitely preferable to the noisy life; and they’re not the only poets or philosophers to have reached this conclusion. Why is it, then, that these wise thinkers are completely ignored and that everyone still flocks to the city in search of fun, money and kicks? Why can’t we be happy with going blithely into a nearby wood? After a year of lockdown, pundits are predicting an explosion of moneyspending, pleasure-seeking and generally un-monkish behavior. Many of us may have enjoyed the involuntary simplicity and silence imposed during lockdowns. But most people are going to forget all about woods – and reading edifying works of classical literature – and hurl themselves into a dizzy whirl of excess. Humans like both worlds. That’s why the first thing that rich people do when they get rich is buy a country villa. And it’s why Eastern Bloc countries had and still have the excellent dacha system. My Czech friend Vanda and her husband are not bankers but they have a hut and plot of land in the country to which they retreat for weekends and holidays. The ultimate human dream is to become a hybrid: the town-and-country mouse.


Country Mouse

My services to Wiltshire and Craig Brown’s garden

JAMES O. DAVIES

giles wood

How have I managed to live in Wiltshire for 30 years without Nikolaus Pevsner’s guide to the county, first published in 1963? This third edition now sitting in my hands is regarded as the most comprehensive, reliable and essential guide to Wiltshire’s architectural heritage from prehistory to the present day. Well, to answer my own question, I have managed quite easily. Trowbridgebased Ken Watts’s Exploring Historic Wiltshire (1998) has been an agreeable companion for this layman, researching his adopted county. I also stumbled across H W Timperley’s The Vale of Pewsey (1954), which taught me more about my immediate surroundings. Moreover, far from being a ‘lookingglass dreamer’, as Geoffrey Grigson once dubbed him, Richard Jefferies (1848-87) has through his writings furnished me with a forensically detailed picture of local life in the last century or two (a blink, in geological time). His intense gaze falls not only on the natural world but also on the ways and customs of ordinary folk and their masters in town and county. Meanwhile, it is the bust of Jefferies, not Grigson, that resides on the west wall of Salisbury Cathedral. For Pevsner (1902-1983), Wiltshire was the ‘county of the cottage’. Like me, he was an outsider, but there the similarity ends. He was fleeing persecution from the Nazis and got to know his adopted homeland with a Teutonic eye for detail. I know the cottage where he lived, near Clyffe Pypard. He acquired it from Grigson, his London neighbour and friend, who described it as ‘a minute, three-roomed house in ruins under an inland cliff’. It became Pevsner’s man cave. It’s in a spectacular location, with views redolent of the panoramic Dutch landscapes by Philip de Koninck. In fact, it’s an attractive and quite unspoilt – but

practically unknown – area of the county, which I much prefer to the alien, abduction-style prairies further south, where my wife has forced me to live. I was transplanted by Mary from a mortgage-free hovel in Essex, where, as our old friend Anne used to chuckle, I was ‘slowly going downhill – just staring into ditches’, to this part of Wiltshire. I have grumbled my life away ever since, proving that transplanted organisms will not always thrive in new locations such as the appropriately named Wilts. I read that a ‘pleasant perambulation’, to borrow a favourite term of Pevsner’s, might be arranged from Bincknoll Camp, the Iron Age hillfort, to the Goddard Arms at Clyffe Pypard, followed by a visit to Pevsner’s grave in St Peter’s churchyard. I have a tenuous personal connection with Geoffrey Grigson (1905-1985) – the once-famed writer, editor, critic and naturalist – which is Pooterish to relate, except that it establishes me within three degrees of separation from the great man (Pevsner) himself. Craig Brown, of this parish, once

The White Horse (1780) and Lansdowne Monument (1845). Cherhill, Wiltshire

owned Grigson’s old farmhouse at Broad Town, where I worked for Brown as a jobbing gardener, in what Mary dubbed a ‘job-creation scheme’. Having spun out all conceivable gardening chores, I branched out into a lucrative sideline, which I dubbed Fencing Solutions, fencing Brown’s garden in order to stop his dog Pip running onto the busy main road. Since Pip, the off-white West Highland Terrier, got under the fence not once but twice, I had to offer an add-on service, Fencing Solutions Solutions. Brown offered me lunch on the days when I was working on the Fencing Solutions (‘Are you eating lunch in my time or yours?’ he would joke). However, my presence in the garden proved invaluable one day, when two neighbours, aware that the farmhouse had changed hands, barged shamelessly into Brown’s garden and, mistaking me for the new owner, declared that they coveted a wall-mounted memorial, boasting lines of poetry by Grigson carved in italics into the slate. ‘Could we have it?’ they asked bumptiously, their assumption being that I, the new owner, would be too insensitive to want it and might even throw it into a skip. As I escorted them firmly out of the garden, I was able to explain, with utmost tact, that the presence of said memorial was one of the main reasons Brown, a prominent writer and critic himself, had bought the farmhouse in the first place. Off they went, tails between their legs, lips pursed. Thus I was able to offer a tertiary service to Mr Brown who, disliking confrontation, was relieved to have been spared it. I waived the charge for my diplomatic skills. Not everyone can live in picturesque, thatched cottages (mine even appears in Pevsner), protected by estate-village status. Still, in the 30 years of my residency, the county has, of course, been disfigured by new-build housing without infrastructure in place to service it. As part, no doubt, of ‘levelling down’, the Tories are determined to relax the planning laws to bring further disfigurement to the south. The only good thing to be said for the new builds is that – while bird-feeding opportunities are generally absent from arable farmland, where their populations continue to plummet – at least the incomers usually have bird tables. The Pevsner Guide to Wiltshire by Nikolaus Pevsner, Julian Orbach and Bridget Cherry is published on 8th June (Yale University Press) The Oldie June 2021 39


Postcards from the Edge

The strange history of plastic Paddies

TOBY MORISON

Mary Kenny recalls the English who turned Irish – from John le Carré to Rose Dugdale, the IRA terrorist

Just before he died, John le Carré, an embodiment of Englishness in his writing, took Irish citizenship. In one of the last photographs of the spy author, he was wrapped in an Irish flag. Le Carré – real name David Cornwell – joins a tradition of Englishmen who became, or claimed to be, Irish. Patrick O’Brian, author of the Aubrey–Maturin stories, lived a private life but let it be supposed he was Irish. Actually, he was Richard Patrick Russ from Buckinghamshire – father of German heritage, mother with a distant Irish connection. Similarly, actor Peter O’Toole claimed to be from Connemara: in fact, he was a Yorkshireman, if temperamentally Irish. W B Yeats’s ‘Irish’ muse, Maud Gonne, was a spirited Englishwoman, drawn to Ireland by revolutionary fervour. The head of the Provisional IRA in the early 1970s, Seán Mac Stíofáin, was born in Leytonstone as John Stephenson and spoke with a London accent. His father was English, and his mother a Londoner of Ulster Protestant heritage. And then there’s Rose Dugdale, Oxford-educated deb turned IRA enthusiast, imprisoned in 1974 for bombing activities and nicking Old Masters from Russborough House, Wicklow, where the owners, the Beits, were tied, gagged and pistol-whipped. Eighty this year, she’s to be the subject of a new biography by Sean O’Driscoll. But the crowning laurel must surely go to Ireland’s most legendary actor, Micheál Mac Liammóir, born in Willesden as Alfred Wilmore, who in early adulthood wholly reinvented himself as an Irishman. He confected a name never previously known in the annals of Irish genealogy, along with a poetic Cork accent, claiming he had been born in Cork. He mastered the Irish language – indeed, spoke a beautiful Irish and wrote all his diaries in it. He kept up the disguise all his life – he died in 1978 – and was admired for it. 40 The Oldie June 2021

His childhood friend Noël Coward always went along with the masquerade – why not? The role was sincere and Micheál, unmistakably gay, was adorable. Nowadays he’d be unmasked as ‘living a lie’; but why shouldn’t he play the role in life that he wanted to play? Granted, John le Carré’s embrace of Irish identity was more about rejecting Brexit, where earlier ‘switchers’, as they’re called in the field of religion, were rather drawn to rebellion, revolution or some mystical feeling for Celtic romanticism. (Incidentally, previous ‘switchers’ sometimes became Catholics, too.) But there is continuity also: le Carré saw the pro-EU aspect of Irish nationality as more uplifting than Brexit Britain. It was a way of rejecting his own roots, which has always been a common theme in the switching of identities. I am sceptical that plans to produce an English-language version of the French Netflix series Call My Agent! can succeed. The comedy drama – originally named Dix pour cent – is so quintessentially French that I can’t see how it can be rendered into a British or American version. It’s not the Parisian chic that is so untranslatable; it’s the essential spirit. The story is set in a talent agency in Paris, with four leading characters, plus several other glittering supporting ones.

They are totally amoral: they backstab one another, falsify any situation with prodigious lies and double-cross anyone, whenever it’s expedient. In their sex lives, they pursue their pleasures, tout court, and if that’s selfish, so be it! They are witty and articulate, and snobbish about the dinginess of provincial life. And yet the storyline has subtle subtexts. The characters may behave amorally, but there is a deeper moral at play: they come up against the consequences of their actions, and the complex entanglements wrought by their brashly egotistical choices. Beneath the sophisticated heartlessness, there is plenty of heart, and a ‘family feeling’ for the group. Under the brittleness, there is insecurity and often emotional failure. Actors Jack Davenport and Lydia Leonard are suggested for the AngloSaxon version. Perhaps it can be done, but it will be a different story, told in a different way. And surely the allure of the Netflix series is that it is so typically French. Last year, I experienced some problems with my eyes. I had treatment for a macular bleed in one eye and then a cataract operation in the other, which was growing fuzzy. What a worry. It was a joyful moment indeed when the ophthalmologist pronounced my sight had been restored, with the words, ‘You’re now fit to drive!’ Since middle age, I’ve adored taking the wheel of my various modest vehicles. Driving is freedom, leisure, adventure and independence. The car has emancipated women as much as the vote, the washing machine or the pill. But it emerges that young adults are driving less than in any previous generation. There’s an ecology war on the conventional car, and the youngsters don’t go out as much anyway. They want better publictransport infrastructures. But we had the open road when the going was good!



Tears in Provence In 1975, adman Jeremy Scott left New York to build his dream home in France. It turned into an admin nightmare

R

eader, I realised the dream. And may I give you a warning: DON’T. For 20 years, I laboured in London and New York, manufacturing TV ads. I crammed gourmet food into the mouths of greedy, demanding clients with high anxiety pumping through their veins along with the copious alcohol I provided. My pleasure in food, drink and life itself quite drained away as my liver withered. After so much, I quit. I bought a ruined olive mill in the foothills of the Alps behind Nice, on the bank of the River Cagne. Upstream, one’s sight line was cut off by a vertical cascade of white water plunging into the ravine. There was only one snag: the river ran in the bed of the ravine, hidden from the mill. To make the view perfect would require one alteration: to dam the gorge to create a large natural pool, so close I could dive into it from the terrace. To construct the dam, I recruited two mains d’oeuvres from a shanty encampment of Tunisian immigrants. Neither spoke a word of French but the project proved simple to convey. The three of us stripped off and set to work. It took three weeks to build the dam with boulders from the riverbed. The sun burned hot but we could cool off in the river. It was satisfying labour. Finally, we heaved the last boulder into place to plug the only remaining exit, and scrambled up the bank to watch. Slowly the surface of the water rose, creeping up the walls of the ravine. The pool took 15 minutes to fill, and then the water lipped the edge and sheeted down to continue on its course. I stood entranced as the ravine morphed into a large pond. The transformation appeared miraculous – the most magical quarter-hour of my life. Overhung by trees, the tranquil surface sparkled in the sun. Every prospect pleased – and only man was vile. I received a visit from the police. I knew there were three 42 The Oldie June 2021

police forces in France: the CRS (the body-armoured cops who bust heads), the National Police and the Gendarmerie. But here was a fourth – the garde champêtre, rural wardens. Officer Bon was a costive churl, in peaked hat and lumpy uniform in that particular shade of green that, even when accessorised with a gun belt and pistol, never really works. He did not waste time with needless courtesies. ‘You have been denounced for stealing water,’ he said. ‘Under the law of 1854, article 78, I must search your property.’ I stared at him in shock. ‘Your identity,’ he snapped. He followed me into the living room as I went to fetch my passport. He examined my worn blue passport with a frown. ‘Your permis de séjour,’ he demanded. My residence permit? He was speaking of a historic document, a souvenir of the past. France and the UK were now one. Officer Bon and I were brothers in the European Community. ‘Here you are always a foreigner,’ he told me. ‘The bathroom,’ he ordered. There he ran the taps and flushed the lavatory. ‘Where does this water come from?’ he asked. ‘The river?’

I told him it came from a spring on the hillside above my property. He grunted and wrote something in his notebook. ‘The garden,’ he said. I led him onto the terrace. Flagstones extended to where the tranquil surface of my pool glittered in the sun. Officer Bon went rigid at the sight. ‘Hah!’ he uttered triumphantly. ‘A lake!’ He had found the stolen water. ‘A felony,’ he pronounced. Surely not, I protested. I owned both banks, along with the riverbed. ‘But you do not own the water. The water belongs to the state.’ After taking several photographs and a sample of the evidence in a half-bottle, he left. He was back two days later with an amende for 8,000 francs and a notice from the mairie that the stolen water must be released at once. Now? ‘Now,’ he confirmed. ‘I shall stay here till you do so.’ I left him guarding the water while I drove to get the Arabs. They stripped and set to with pickaxes. A key boulder prised loose. Water pressure hurled it downstream in the flood that followed, tearing away a whole section of the wall which disintegrated in the torrent. The dam had taken three weeks to construct and ten minutes to demolish. I watched my pool shrink till it became a hole in the ground. The Arabs had skipped to safety to join us on the bank, naked in their hard hats and dripping water. ‘These men are known to me,’ said Officer Bon. ‘They are illegal immigrants. And you have paid them cash. You are subject to an amende for defrauding the state of their taxes.’ Reader, dream the dream, but be warned. However onerous the job, however alluring the dream, do not fulfil it. Enjoy it in your mind where dreams belong. Elsewhere you are always a foreigner.

Santé! Jeremy and Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence, France, 1976

Jeremy Scott is author of Fast and Louche: Confessions of a flagrant sinner (Profile)



sister teresa

Let us pray to the god of small things ‘May we give glory to God by the lives that we lead.’ These are the words spoken by the priest at the end of our daily Mass. The day had barely begun. In general, was it going to give God glory? And, in particular, was my day going to do so? It was a major cleaning day – so the community was certainly giving God glory – cleanliness being next to godliness. This saying is not actually to be found in the Bible, but originated in one of John Wesley’s sermons in 1778. There is a mass of detail regarding uncleanliness throughout the Old Testament. One is only too thankful not to have to comply with such regulations. Some of the rules on diet amount to sensible personal hygiene, but keeping oneself even moderately pure would have been quite a burden. I was the cook that day, and so I had to feed the hungry. There was a tiny wren fussing around in the sunshine just outside the kitchen window. Then our gardener brought in some cabbages: deep emerald-green and sprinkled with dewdrops, they were as beautiful as roses.

All this was delightfully contemplative, but it wasn’t going to cook lunch. It was sad to ruin the cabbages by slicing them extra fine but, when they were lightly stir-fried with crushed garlic, beauty was replaced by deliciousness. The cheese soufflé, for 22, cooked in a single dish, worked. As it came out of the oven, I breathed a sigh of relief: ‘It is risen – alleluia.’ There was just enough time to make a butterscotch-and-apple tart: essential sugar to renew the community’s energy after a busy morning, and to ensure that the afternoon’s floor-polishing would be done with vigour.

The evening was spent at community recreation. I helped clothe the potentially naked by mending their brown habits with brown patches and brown thread (dull but necessary). Recreation was considered by St Teresa of Ávila, the foundress of the Carmelite order, to be one of the most important hours in the day, because often it is the most taxing. That night, the atmosphere was congenial and the topics were varied: knitting patterns, the sighting of a goldcrest in the woods and the consequences of interbreeding between the Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. And so to bed. But not before Compline, the last of our seven daily visits to the chapel for sung liturgy. Reading the Gospels, one realises that Jesus was constantly trying his hardest to restore people’s lives to health, happiness and normality: a foretaste of the kingdom of God in the daily round. Ours had been a humdrum day − nothing wrong with that − ‘Heaven in ordinary,’ as George Herbert wrote so accurately in his sonnet Prayer.

Funeral Service

Shan Gardner (1945-2021) Samantha Broadhurst and her brother Matt Gardner led the tributes at the funeral in the Cordell Chapel, Melbourne, of their father, Shan Gardner. He was an exuberant auctioneer, whose manner and comic timing on the podium were often said to be a polite version of Barry Humphries’s chum Sir Les Patterson. Brought up in Ballina, County Mayo, and christened David, Gardner was always known as Shan after his godfather Sir Shan Hackett, the Australian general, military historian and veteran of the Battle of Arnhem. After Harrow, in 1963 Gardner joined Nonning Station, a million acres of saltbush and red earth near Port Augusta, as a jackeroo (trainee manager), chasing sheep and cattle on horses and motorbikes from dawn until dusk in extreme heat. 44 The Oldie June 2021

Samantha said it was hard to imagine the conditions he was exposed to in the bush. ‘The conditions would send most young British men packing on the next ship home. His pushing through the sandflies, dust, humidity, heat and long hours is a true representation of his character and grit.’ In the early 1970s, Gardner worked for Elders land agents as a stock and station agent, while developing his auctioneering skills. He became an industrial auctioneer and worked for several auction houses. He acquired 944 acres of land near

Willaura, western Victoria, where he bred his beloved Charolais cattle and sheep and had thoroughbred horses. Gardner later moved to Melbourne and became a black-cab driver while developing his auctioneering career. His plans to establish his business, Gardner and Partners, under his father’s racing colours, maroon and gold, soon took off. In 1988, Gardner and Partners was established. Gardner performed evaluations and auctions, specialising in industrial equipment. Shan’s Driza-Bone coat, highly polished R M Williams boots, Akubra stockman’s hat, auctioneering gavel and a wooden photographic cut-out from his schooldays at Harrow were on display in the church. JAMES HUGHES-ONSLOW


The Doctor’s Surgery

GPs should see you in the flesh

Video consultations are far too remote for good treatment theodore dalrymple No one really expects, or wants, a personal relationship with his or her histopathologist – the man or woman who examines one’s biopsy under the microscope when cancer is suspected. On the other hand, no one wants to be treated impersonally, as a mere specimen in a bottle, on that first to the doctor with something wrong. British medicine, in particular, is becoming more and more impersonal, no doubt for a variety of reasons. Even before COVID-19 struck, there was an increasing tendency everywhere for so-called face-to-face consultations to be face-to-profile consultations. The face in question was often the doctor’s, as he or she peers into the computer screen, like a soothsayer at a funfair peering into a crystal ball to descry the client’s future. Sometimes, on the rare occasions when I have consulted my doctor (or perhaps, more accurately, I should say when I have consulted a doctor), I have felt like waving my arms about, just to draw attention to my physical presence

in my room, as well as my virtual presence in the doctor’s. The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on medical practice may be like the Napoleonic Wars’ effect on taxation. Income tax was introduced as a temporary expedient to pay for the wars. It became as permanent and inescapable a feature of life as the weather or Christmas. Likewise, consultations via computer screens may be here to stay, at least until doctors are replaced entirely by monitoring microchips inserted into our bodies. The progress towards impersonal medical care seems inexorable and irreversible, even if it is not in the strictest sense a historical inevitability. The slide began with the elimination of home visits and night duty from the work of general practitioners. That was followed by the amalgamation of doctors’ surgeries into group practices, when doctors became simply interchangeable assembly-line workers. The fact that so many of them were

‘Could you write, “I promise this is my last novel”?’

well-enough paid to work less than full time had a similar effect. A survey suggests that only one in nine GPs in training intends to work full time. That means ever more doctors will have to be employed to do any given amount of work – which, of course, is always increasing. This is all a small part of the general and progressive (or progressing) expense-maximisation scheme of our society; work-life balance comes at a price, though not for those who achieve it. No doubt studies will soon be done to demonstrate how unnecessary it is for doctors actually to meet their patients. We live in times when it is necessary to prove the beneficial effects even of passing the time of day, without which such niceties might be considered a waste of breath and energy. Someone of my acquaintance was asked by his doctor recently (over a video link, of course) to take a selfie video of his swelling that that the doctor thought, from its description, was probably an inguinal hernia. A little cough would make it swell. My acquaintance found this both distasteful and humiliating, but of course we can get used to anything and, after all, it was very efficient, time-saving and convenient all round. For the patient, no journey; for the doctor, no need to wait while the patient undressed and no risk of having to put up with body odours and other unpleasantnesses. The virtualisation of medicine is merely a small part of a general movement towards the world as described by E M Forster’s prescient short story, published in 1909, The Machine Stops. In the story, social distancing has been so long the norm that actual contact has come to seem distasteful or even obscene. Efficiency is not the same as happiness. My wife (a doctor, too) asked a salient question about one of the services offered by the NHS. Would anyone who had the money to choose an alternative pay for the service? The Oldie June 2021 45


The Oldie, 23–31 Great Titchfield Street, London, W1W 7PA letters@theoldie.co.uk To sign up for our e-newsletter, go to www.theoldie.co.uk

Larkin visits Monica SIR: John Sutherland’s piece ‘Larkin’s bare cheek’ (May issue) reminded me of Philip Larkin officially opening the new Library at Leicester University on 27th September 1975. As sub-librarian for administrative matters, I had to organise the occasion. After Philip had spoken and unveiled a commemorative plaque, the architect Alan Park presented him with a print of old Leicester which my wife had wrapped in colourfully patterned paper. Philip’s response, ‘How kind – I do need a new pair of pyjamas,’ brought the formal, rather stuffy event to a delightfully relaxed conclusion. A photograph showing Philip speaking to the audience, with Monica Jones in the front row, can be seen in the photo below. Sincerely, Michael Hannon, Sheffield ‘He’s a vegetarian’

Thanks for the memories

Larkin, left, addresses Monica at her workplace, Leicester University, 1975

Callaghan’s son on No 10 SIR: Like most of the rest of the country, I have avoided spending time reading about the furnishings at the Downing Street flat, but the reporting did remind me of a story my father, Jim Callaghan, told about being there for an event after Mrs Thatcher had had it redecorated. He saw Harold Macmillan sitting by himself and went over to ask how he was. Harold complained that he was miserable because he had shingles. To lighten the mood, my father asked what he thought of the new decorations. Harold said, ‘In my day, the place was like a country gentleman’s comfortable town house, but now you might as well be in Claridge’s.’ Yours, Michael Callaghan, Nayland, Suffolk 46 The Oldie June 2021

SIR: A friend mentioned how much she liked The Oldie. It made me think it was about time I subscribed to it again, so I did. What I wasn’t expecting to receive was the Oldie Annual, pick of the all-time best … and I was happily browsing through it one night when suddenly I came across a lovely piece, by my late husband, Ken Cooper: ‘Labour of Love’ (February 2009), all about a bunch of cheerful oldies building a First World War biplane in Batley, West Yorkshire. It felt a bit as though Ken was waving at me from across the great divide – and how chuffed he would have been to be included in the all-time best of The Oldie! Thank you. Sincerely, Ged Cooper, York

God’s deal with man SIR: Mary Kenny (Spring issue) quotes a Spanish proverb ‘ “Take what you like,” says God. “And pay for it.” ’ I was taught this in a different, rather more sinister, form: ‘ “Take what you like,” says God,

“and, after you have taken it, I will tell you the price.” ’ I have spent a lifetime trying to find out where it came from – is it a variation of the Spanish, or do both have a common source? YOurs, David Culver, London SE9

Eurostar reaches the Med SIR: Like Mary Kenny (Spring issue), my husband and I will be heartbroken if Eurostar disappears from service as a result of the pandemic. It does, however, appear as though Ms Kenny has missed a trick. She writes, ‘I was so looking forward to Eurostar extending its reach to enable train travel to the Mediterranean…’ In fact, for years before COVID, Eurostar was going to Marseille during the summer months, via Lyon and Avignon. We made the journey several times, and for us nervous flyers it was the best way to reach the south of France. We were looking forward to Eurostar extending its service to the west coast of France, to Bordeaux specifically. Maybe it will happen. Here’s hoping. Sarah Atkin, Driffield, East Yorkshire


Bernard Miles’s elocution

Reading in the rain

SIR: Your reader Tony Noakes (Letters, Spring issue) mentions hearing rural accents of farm workers in Hertfordshire. I taught in the north-west of that county in the 1960s to 1980s. I remember one of my colleagues recounting how she could decipher the phonetic spelling of one lad only by reading his literary efforts aloud in the country dialect. Sadly, I fear the only way to hear the accent nowadays is to listen to the wonderful vintage recordings of Sir Bernard Miles. With best wishes, Robert Webb, Poynton, Cheshire PS I have only recently subscribed to The Oldie and am enjoying every issue. Thanks.

SIR: As a relative newcomer to The Oldie, I celebrated the 400th issue by spending the whole day reading it. With occasional comfort breaks, it passed a very wet Saturday in May and left me in jocund mood. No need to feel lonely or isolated when cocooned in the warmth this magazine can offer. Rain lashing at the window, but only the purr of amusement and odd guffaw of sheer pleasure coming from my cloistered cell today. June’s issue … bring it on! Elizabeth Capon, Lancaster

Silas Marner’s grammar SIR: May I commend Matthew Sturgis’s use of the apostrophe in his review of Hugo Vickers’s book on Cecil Beaton’s exploits? As a tedious old English teacher, I had an extended discussion with colleagues about Silas Marner’s apostrophe as evidenced in students’ essays which might feature a phrase such as ‘Silas’ feelings about Eppie are pure and devoted’, or some such twaddle. I won the day by photocopying page 94, or thereabouts, where George Eliot had written that ‘Silas’s feelings’ had, broadly, those characteristics. I distributed it to my class ordering them to follow her example, thus improving their grades, and life chances, one hopes. Richard Bush, Colyton, Devon

Nash hits rock bottom SIR: My favourite Ogden Nash, which I hesitate to quote these days, is: Sure deck your lower limbs in pants; Yours are the limbs, my sweeting. You look divine as you advance − Have you seen yourself retreating? Joseph Buchan, Marnhull, Dorset

‘Do you have to keep checking your messages?’

‘When you said you were taking me to your yacht for lunch, I imagined something different entirely’

The real Downton Abbey

Pipe dreams come true

SIR: I was very surprised on reading the interview (On the Road, May issue) with Julian Fellowes at some glaring omissions. In response to the question ‘Where else was Downton shot?’ he replied, inter alia, ‘Bridgewater House as Grantham House’. In fact, all the scenes of the interior of the Grantham London home were shot at Basildon Park in Lower Basildon. When asked, ‘Where was Belgravia shot?’ he replied, ‘Everywhere. I think we had 102 locations, principally Moray Place in Edinburgh, because we could not shoot in Belgravia – it’s all embassies.’ In fact, a large proportion of the family and domestic scenes were again shot at Basildon. Basildon Park is a National Trust property and at the time of both ventures I was a working volunteer at the house and watched both series in order to see how the house and its interior had been represented. Yours faithfully, Anthony Evans, Pangbourne, Berkshire

SIR: Joseph Connolly is too pessimistic. Many tobacconists still serve the needs of those who won’t be bullied out of the solace smoking gives them. Since the last tobacconist in Worcester closed, I have been going to the excellent John Hollingsworth in Great Western Arcade in Birmingham. While they have been closed, I have received my tobacco by post from the wonderful Johnny’s of Newquay. Mr Connolly should take heart. All is by no means lost. Yours faithfully, P C Thompson, Worcester

Philip’s drinking problem SIR: An anecdote to add to Gyles Brandreth’s recollections (May issue). HRH The Duke of Edinburgh paid a visit to his Regiment, the 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles, in March 1983. (The Regiment had served in the Falklands the year before.) After watching a mock battle, HRH went forward to meet the men and clearly enjoyed himself, chatting and joking as he went round. Approaching one rifleman, he pointed to the man’s lanyard and said, ‘What’s on the end of that?’ ‘Whistle, sahib,’ came the reply. The Duke took hold of the lanyard and pulled it – to reveal a bottle-opener. Everyone, including the Duke and the Gurkha soldier, burst into laughter. Yours sincerely, Lieutenant General Sir Peter Duffell, Britford, Salisbury

I’m forever in blue jeans SIR: I never read such pompous baloney as in Liz Hodgkinson’s rant in the May issue. She wrote as if all jeans worn by oldies are old and ‘clapped out’ (her expression), while we all know that they can be well cut and smart, and quite suitable for informal occasions. In fact, the jeans in imminent danger of descent and the stupidly slashed ones are normally worn by young people. Anyway, it’s up to us what we wear – none of your business, Liz. Brenda Bishop (84-year-old jeanswearer), Lowestoft, Suffolk

‘You’re under a lot of pressure? Think about the expectations people have when your name starts with “Great” ’ The Oldie June 2021 47


I Once Met

Pope John Paul II British Caledonian Airways had been awarded the fixed-wing and helicopter contract to fly His Holiness and party round the British Isles on his visit in 1982. We used two Sikorsky S-61N helicopters, normally based in Aberdeen in support of offshore oil and gas operations: one crewed by Frayne Coulshaw and me, and the second by Mike Webber and David Babbington. First, we went to Wimbledon Park for the pick-up. I was co-pilot for the day, sitting in the left seat and watching over my right shoulder as His Holiness came up the aisle, followed by an assortment of cardinals, archbishops, lesser dignitaries, speechwriters, medics, security men and hangers-on. His Holiness came forward and selected the front-row double seat. Cardinal Hume took the single seat on the other side of the aisle, and the rest sorted themselves out in a leisurely but slightly chaotic manner.

While all this was going on, His Holiness took his seat and, to my horror – and to this day it’s a mystery – the foldable seat leg did just that, and in slow motion he slid gently to the floor in the central aisle. For a moment or two nobody moved or came to his aid. Cardinal Hume was looking out of the window at the crowds

Christopher Hunt shakes hands with the Pope. Frayne Coulshaw behind – the Pope later blessed his missal

outside. The incoming throng were still sorting out their seating arrangements or pretending not to notice. Like me, they must have been thinking, ‘This is just not happening – it can’t be.’ I had time to undo my harness, move back from the cockpit into the cabin and pick up and dust down a slightly shaken but mercifully unhurt Pope. He was enormously gracious and, to be honest, I don’t think many of the people further back even noticed. To this day, I have occasional flashbacks to what could have been a horrendous disaster. Supposing he had broken a hip or worse? After all, it was not so long since he had been shot and he was still quite frail. All I can say is that we must have been forgiven because, at the end of the tour, he was kind enough to give us his signature in our flying logbooks. I saw him as a man of quiet, courteous dignity and charisma. I am thrilled to have met him. Christopher Hunt

My Gaza childhood

Being neither Israeli nor Palestinian, I should not be so personally affected by the latest flare-up in the Middle East. But all those bursts of war, followed by periods of uneasy peace, have punctuated my life and stirred up some strong emotions. When I was a small child, my family lived in one of the grander parts of Jerusalem. During the Second World War, my father had been a vicar in Buckinghamshire, escaping shot and shell. Feelings of guilt drove him to Israel as a Christian missionary. And Israel’s war of independence was hotting up. My mother was 48 The Oldie June 2021

determined to join him, with their three young children. She was even undeterred by the devastating Jewish attack on the King David Hotel. In the autumn of 1946, at the age of two, I took up residence in what was then called Street of the Prophets. But after five months, with violence increasing, British women and children were evacuated. An RAF serviceman was killed outside our house. In an ironic twist of fate, we were sent to a refugee camp in Gaza. My father eventually followed us back to Britain two years later, when the State of Israel came into being. The next time I went to Israel, my mother had remarried and my stepfather was a visiting professor at Tel Aviv

University. I had a blissful holiday with them, celebrating my 21st birthday. We spent time in a kibbutz close to the Lebanese border – a peaceful border, we were assured. Nobody expected it to be otherwise. Thirteen years later, I was on that same Lebanese border, as a BBC war correspondent. For the first time, the Israelis invaded Lebanon, and I was there. Jumping into a bomb shelter,

John Sergeant, aged three, in 1947

I heard for the first time the frightening rocket warning: ‘Incoming’. When John Major was Prime Minister, I visited a peaceful Gaza. The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, even hugged me. Later I was with Tony Blair visiting Israel after the 9/11 attacks. Only a week before the recent violence, I was planning a visit to Israel to write an optimistic holiday feature. I had no idea that, once again, I might be frightened to hear the shout of ‘Incoming’. But I have come to the conclusion that perhaps I am not yet ready to relive my past, in quite that way. By John Sergeant, Ealing, London, who receives £50 Readers are invited to send in their own 400-word submissions about the past


Sophia Waugh: School Days

No more sitting on the old school bench Finally we know the date when Year 11s are to leave us. They have two weeks’ school after the exams – how to entertain them? I’ve been having fun, planning lessons on short stories about fear – Graham Greene, Shirley Jackson and Raymond Carver. I don’t want them to write anything – just to do a bit of wider reading and have a bit of a discussion. And, once again, my book benefactor will come into play. I’ve decided to give all Year 11s who are going on to take English Literature a couple of fine books to be reading over the summer: a 19th-century classic (Far from the Madding Crowd, Dracula or Agnes Grey, depending on the student) and a 20th-century masterpiece (Brighton Rock, A Handful of Dust or 1984). Nine of my 23 students are going on to do English Literature next year. This is, quite frankly, a boast. I am so proud. I am doubly sad this year as I have not only my heroic top set to wave goodbye to, but also my tutor group. This summer marks five years at my ‘new’ school, 20 years of teaching – and what will probably be the last tutor group I see all the way through. Mind you, I’ve been saying that for ages and then keep tacking on an extra few years. I’ve just been told that next year I will be getting the shiny top set again. That’ll keep me there for at least another two years.

It is very odd saying goodbye to these 16-year-olds. Just as they become really interesting potential adults, they disappear from your life. The ones who have hated school, sworn at you, skived lessons and refused any encouragement to learn are, peculiarly, the ones who will visit again and again over the next year, saying how much they miss school and you. The ones who, now, are saying they don’t want to leave are the ones we will never see again. Bright and bold, they will march forward with their faces to the future. But my tutees … they are a different story. It sounds ridiculous, perhaps, but there is no doubt that, over the five years with them, I become truly attached to these students. Even the naughty ones. Especially, perhaps, the naughty ones. And this year more than ever. There were the long, dreary lockdown months when I never saw them – but, as we know, absence makes the heart grow fonder. I was most concerned about the ones struggling under lockdown. I rang them most often. We lost some of them. One of my boys – always difficult, often truculent and charming, he’d shied away from school increasingly since year seven – has disappeared. He’s dropped out of school and the apprenticeship he was briefly engaged in. He still sometimes knocks on the door, with a big smile, promising this

time it will all be different. Alas, I fear not. I know his memory will revisit me for a long time, and I will wonder what I could have done to make a difference. Then there is the boy who drove me mad for three years, in front of whom I had to struggle to contain myself from sharpness. He has turned into a confiding, reasonable, thoughtful 16-year-old. He went to fetch me a cup of coffee the other day. That may sound like nothing but, trust me, it wasn’t. Unless things change yet again, they will have their prom this year. One of my boys is a clever, keen reader. The other day, he gave me a key ring, saying, ‘If I can’t bring my book, I’m not coming.’ He’s decided, to his parents’ alarm, that he wants not to do A levels but to become a carpenter. He asked me why he couldn’t wear ‘joggers’ at the prom. But they all – including him – will dress up in their finery, look awkward for the first half an hour and then have a ball. For many, it will be the first time they have sat down to a formal meal. But I know from past experience how much even the shyest will enjoy it. And so farewell, then, as E J Thribb would say. Farewell the young, the bold, the shy and the clever. Farewell those who loved, hated and put up with school. Let’s hope schooldays aren’t the best days of any of their lives. That would be a terrible shame.

Quite Interesting Things about … June Rosa June Whitfield is a rose named after Oldie of the Year winner Dame June Whitfield (1925-2018). As she pointed out at the time, ‘The catalogue describes it as “superb for bedding, best up against a wall”.’ June in America is National Accordion Awareness Month.

1st June is World Milk Day. In the Philippines, the Milkiest Celebration runs all month.

poll found that 45 per cent of Britons didn’t know what the Magna Carta was.

On 15th June 1215, King John signed the Magna Carta. In 2006, 15th June won most votes in a BBC History poll to find a national Britain Day. In 2008, a YouGov

By June 2013, there were no men left in the world who’d been born in the 19th century – but 21 women were.

Stretch your ears

On 30th June 1998, England lost to Argentina in a World Cup penalty shoot-out. Over the next 72 hours, the number of heart attacks in England increased by 25 per cent. JOHN LLOYD

On 28th June 2009, Stephen Hawking hosted a party for time travellers from the future. Nobody showed up. The Oldie June 2021 49



Books Guilty Storey MICHAEL BILLINGTON A Stinging Delight

GARY WING

By David Storey Faber £20 David Storey’s 11 novels are out of print and his 15 plays rarely performed – despite the huge success of his first novel, This Sporting Life (1960), and a Booker Prize for his 1976 novel, Saville. Yet this rivetingly honest memoir, finally published four years after his death at 83, not only is a testament to his personal endurance but will, I hope, lead to a re-evaluation of his artistic achievement. I had always assumed guilt was the driving force behind his work. I’ve never forgotten Storey once telling me that he put in an eight-hour shift as a writer because that was the amount of time his father, who was a miner, spent every day down the pit. But, reading this book, I realised that Storey was much more than a victim of the puritan conscience. As he himself says, everything he wrote was characterised by ‘an unspecified grieving for someone I had never known’. But who was that someone? A brother, Neville, who died at the age of six and a half when Storey was a 12-week-old foetus in his mother’s womb. The trauma of Neville’s death led Storey’s mother to threaten suicide, starve her newborn baby of tactile affection and briefly farm out another son, Tony, to relatives. By Storey’s own account, his later depression was the result of prenatal damage to his central nervous system, just as the sense of loss that marked his work was attributable to Neville’s death. This makes the book sound grim. But, while Storey never shies away from describing the terrors that constantly haunted him, he also offers a brilliant

account of his early days. As a boy, he had a muscularity that came from his working as a farmhand and a marqueeerector; yet, at the age of 15, he had a Damascene conversion that led him to decide he would be a writer and painter. That duality famously found expression in his late teens when he was studying art at the Slade School during the week and commuting to Leeds at weekends to play rugby league. Out of that tension came This Sporting Life, the acclaimed novel later filmed by Lindsay Anderson, which charted the conflict between the body and the spirit, the physical and the aesthetic, the masculine and the feminine. Before his first success in 1960, however, Storey had years of struggle, here recounted with graphic vividness. Storey and his young wife, Barbara,

moved to London and started a family but were constantly hard up: while the rejection slips for Storey’s novels accumulated, he scratched a living as a teacher, working in 17 different schools. You won’t find a much better account of the lurking violence inside London’s blackboard jungle. I also find it touching that, when he finally started to make a bob or two, Storey’s first action was to buy an expensive, white Jaguar saloon. The good years are described with wit and acumen. What is fascinating is Storey’s transition from admired novelist (his books included Radcliffe [1963], Pasmore [1972] and Saville [1976]) to dramatist. Where the novels were the result of years of labour, the plays, including In Celebration (1969), The Contractor and Home (both 1970) and The Changing Room (1973), were written within days. Storey astutely

The Oldie June 2021 51



says that his training at the Slade influenced his writing for the theatre and that he treated the Royal Court stage as ‘a three-dimensional canvas’. He also offers luminous pen portraits of the authoritarian Lindsay Anderson and the eccentric Ralph Richardson, and is sharply observant about the new world he had entered. I love the way Storey says, in the context of one of his plays’ transferring to Broadway, that ‘New York reminded me of Wakefield, a provincial not a capital city, as close to chaos as anything that could be found’. Even at the height of his fame, Storey still suffered recurrent tremors, and the last section of the book describes his psychiatric treatment in the 1980s for clinical depression. It sometimes makes painful reading, but it is a startlingly candid account of what it’s like to suffer from mental illness and reveals a capacity for self-analysis that prompted one doctor to say that Storey himself would make a very good psychotherapist. You feel that the act of writing the book – in effect, a 400-page letter of atonement to his dead brother – had a curative power. I haven’t read any other memoir quite like it: by turns revelatory, humorous, anxiety-ridden and selfaccusatory. When, referring to the Wakefield area where he was born, Storey describes himself as the ‘Hamlet of Lupset estate’, he seems aware of both his own brooding melancholy and the absurdity of the human condition.

Valentine’s way A N WILSON Valentine Ackland: A Transgressive Life By Frances Bingham Handheld Press £15.99 One old reviewer found a tear rolling round his cheek towards the end of this book. When the poet Valentine Ackland went into hospital with breast cancer, she wrote to her lover of 38 years, novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner, ‘Your love has never failed, and never will, life or death.’ Warner, aged 76, would sit by 60-year-old Valentine’s bed, holding her hand, and together they repeated their ‘marriage vows’ to each other. It is the untruth, not the truth, of the declaration that prompts the tears. Halfway through their long association, Sylvia developed a crush on an aspirant American writer, Betty White, which then turned into the raging, years-long affair between White and Valentine. When it was over, Sylvia wrote to Valentine, ‘I was WRONG. I traduced

‘Just look at the poor things… Same routine, day in, day out…’

our unwavering love. I sullied our marriage’ (when she had moved out of their bedroom to allow White into it). I lost count of the number of women in Valentine’s life, from the early schoolgirlish romances, when she was still called Molly and dressed as a girl. Her father, a dental surgeon at Guy’s Hospital, who helped rebuild men’s faces after they’d been shot in the trenches during the First World War, was appalled by his daughter’s emotional preferences, and the two were never reconciled, even when Molly married a Catholic – not much interested in sex with women – called Richard Turpin. (There were gasps at the wedding when it was realised that the bride had an Eton crop, even though no one knew she was continuing her affair with a woman ten years older called Bo Foster.) One of the many torments endured by Sylvia during their long association was that, after a string of affairs, Valentine, who by now dressed as a man and enjoyed nothing better than rough shooting near the Dorset village of their dreams, reverted to Catholicism. Sylvia found this even harder than the rivals in love, perhaps because it was the greatest possible rival in love. A huge relief all round when Valentine chucked Catholicism in favour of the Society of Friends. Although one can imagine Valentine being a good person to get drunk with (and, since she was an alcoholic, this was never difficult), no one could envy her life partner. Valentine longed to be as famous a writer as Sylvia, who in her day was an extremely successful novelist. Sylvia trod on eggshells. They published a volume of poetry together, but there was a simmering resentment on Valentine’s part, when she sensed Sylvia’s work being esteemed more highly than her own. Sylvia once casually remarked that the small magazine The Countryman was

going downhill, before realising the monumental tactlessness of the remark – that particular number contained one of Valentine’s poems. Another dreadful moment was when Sylvia told a visitor, truthfully, that Valentine worked for the local doctor as a secretary and Valentine felt ‘humiliated’. Bingham is good at chronicling the series of jobs gallantly undertaken by Valentine to keep the wolf from the door – including being a clerk to the Territorial Army during the Second World War. She chronicles the travels of the pair, and there is perhaps unconscious comedy in their time in Barcelona, during the Spanish Civil War. One of them described the city to a friend as being ‘like a fantastic Hampstead’. With the rise of fascism, the pair – who had originally, when they got together, had the quiet, amusing aspiration to be like the Ladies of Llangollen – drifted into political allegiance. There was the inevitable membership of the Communist Party, which brought the surveillance of MI5 and, by extension, the local constabulary. Their friend T F Powys, chronicler of bumpkin eccentrics, would surely have treasured the report of the local police sergeant. He found no ‘subversive activities of any kind… Miss Ackland is more on the active side … she drives an MG sports car, which I understand is registered in the name of Miss Warner; she also spends a considerable time at shooting rabbits for which she uses a rifle, and when at home, she more often than not wears male clothing in preference to female attire’. As for Valentine’s poems … I wish Frances Bingham, who is a doughty champion and a good biographer, had persuaded me of their merits. None of the lines quoted is BAD but, unlike Sylvia’s brilliant poems, they are words on a journey to becoming poetry, rather than having arrived.

War heroines SARAH SANDS Going with the Boys By Judith Mackrell Picador £20 This is the story of six female foreign correspondents in the Second World War. They were pioneering, astonishingly brave and mostly damaged thereafter. The title is a quote from Martha Gellhorn as she set off to cover the war in Spain. As George Gellhorn disapprovingly put it to his daughter, Martha, ‘There are two kinds of women. And you are the other kind.’ The Oldie June 2021 53



The physical glamour of these women derived from their origins. Lee Miller and Martha Gellhorn had worked at Vogue. Virginia Cowles was a society columnist. Clare Hollingworth trained in domestic science and secretarial work before becoming a peace activist and finally a war reporter. ‘I love weapons,’ she once wrote. Even after she had scooped the world with her story about the German invasion of Poland, she had to fight for her place and was still paying her own expenses in her late fifties when she went to cover the Vietnam War for the Guardian. While these stories are well known – and these correspondents have been role models to the modern greats, such as the late Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times – this book weaves their stories, along with lesser-known correspondents’ tales, into the fabric of the war. This was the greatest story of the writers’ lives and one of the worst events in history. When Lee Miller and the others reach the concentration camps, there are, finally, ‘no words’. Until then, brutality goes hand in hand with high spirits. Danger was inseparable from exhilaration. The war in Spain formed the backdrop to Martha Gellhorn’s great romance with Ernest Hemingway, leading to a combustible marriage and tragic separation. Just before Chamberlain’s declaration of war, Clare Hollingworth was in Warsaw in the Hotel Europejski, drinking cocktails with the Telegraph’s central European correspondent, Hugh Carleton Greene. Meanwhile, at the Hotel Bristol, she wrote that ‘journalists, diplomats, spies and call girls’ were ‘jostling, laughing, whispering and hugging’ as they waited to see whether ‘the scales would tip them towards peace or war’. Cocktails and gunfire seemed about the right mix. When I worked at the Daily Telegraph, Clare Hollingworth, then in her nineties, would occasionally come into the office and hang around, crotchety and wistful, as if waiting to be sent off on a war assignment. War correspondents are ill-suited to the humdrum pace of domestic news. Virginia Cowles was American correspondent for the Sunday Times. Her report from the front line was bylined ‘New York society girl sees Americans fighting in the trenches’. We see her interviewing Mussolini on the eve of his invasion of Abyssinia and being held captive by a lustful Red Army general. Her description of the fall of Paris is compelling: ‘Try to think in terms of millions. Try to think of noise and

confusion, of the thick smell of petrol, of the scraping of automobile gears, of shots, wails, curses and tears…’ She somehow ends up in a ritzy villa commandeered by Reuters, but hears from an Egyptian friend of scenes in Paris: ‘I saw one woman pull out a revolver and shoot her dog; then set fire to her house.’ Through ingenuity and chutzpah, Virginia reached Bordeaux, where they had not heard the news that Paris had fallen, and found a cargo ferry back to England just as Marshal Petain announced the surrender. She and her fellow reporters embarked on a 36-hour voyage to avoid U-boats, while feasting on foie gras and drinking champagne. Cowles went on to marry the wartime pilot and, later, politician and journalist Aidan Crawley. Gellhorn pronounced her friend dull, chattering about her children. In other words, she adapted to peace in a way that her fellow correspondents could not. Mackrell is interesting about how the women reporters overcame prejudice and protocol. There is the great ‘convenience’ issue, whereby they were banned from front lines on the grounds that there were no female toilets. They were often condescended to by their own papers. But their gender could be useful, because generals sometimes found women more congenial company. When Virginia Cowles was lectured about women’s liberation by her daughter, she sighed that it seemed humourless, aggressive and loud. Mackrell’s amalgamation of their stories is only partially successful and can make the chapters seem fragmented. I might have preferred six profiles in sequence. But there is plenty of original material here and the women come alive in their own writing. This book could easily become a television drama. What women they were, in pursuit of war.

‘Imagine you’re interviewing for a job, and the interviever asks you a series of asinine hypothetical questions. How would you react?’

American elegy IVO DAWNAY The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid By Lawrence Wright Allen Lane £20 There is nothing like writing the fictional version of history before it happens. Back in 2017, Lawrence Wright, a distinguished Pulitzer Prize winner at the New Yorker, started his novel The End of October, about a global pandemic that spreads from Asia to shut down the world. He finished it in 2019 but by the time it was published, in May last year, the real thing was already well under way. The business shutdowns, empty airports, overwhelmed hospitals and chronic maladministration by a narcissist President had all been anticipated in fictional form. Wright claims no special prescience for anticipating the disaster. The prediction that a global pandemic was coming was ubiquitous in the medical world. He simply decided to imagine it and its consequences. ‘It [the novel] was meant to be a warning cry,’ he told one interviewer, adding that now, ‘… whenever I open the paper, it feels like I’m reading my own book. It’s weird.’ Fully prepared by his research, Wright is understandably the first to get out an equally well-informed account of the COVID-19 story as the virus ravaged the USA throughout 2020. The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid thankfully resists any crowing ‘I told you so’s. Instead, it offers a pacy account of how America’s tax-cut-fuelled economic boom and a President, confident of re-election in November, disintegrated under the viral assault. Wright’s ‘long’ 2020 stretches from the first intimations of trouble in Wuhan in December 2019 to the storming of Congress in January this year. But, unlike so many journalists’ instant histories, Wright’s account benefits from an easy familiarity with the science, the key institutions and the individuals; many, no doubt, had already assisted him with his research for the fictional version. For example, even before Donald Trump’s inauguration, Dr Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had warned that there was ‘no doubt’ the incoming president would ‘definitely get surprised [by an outbreak] in the next few years’. But, as a Global Health Security report by the Economist The Oldie June 2021 55



Intelligence Unit and Johns Hopkins University warned, the political will for addressing shortcomings in preparedness ‘is caught in a perpetual cycle of panic and neglect’. No country, however, was better prepared than the US, Wright reports. The Obama administration had left its successor a 69-page ‘playbook’, detailing chapter and verse on how to respond to such a threat. It was the first thing to be ditched by the White House when the disaster struck. And so the catastrophe unfurls in similar fashion in the US as in the UK. Like us, they failed to lock down early; like us, they hesitated to bring in face masks quickly; like ours, their test-andtrace capabilities fell at the first hurdle – mistakes that all the SARS-experienced Asian countries did not make. Where the British and American stories part company is over the cultural factors. It is little comfort for our own 130,000-odd dead that, once the dangers were fully understood, the British public largely accepted the measures to address them. In America, where fatalities are nudging 600,000, COVID became another fault line in the culture war, where mask-wearing became a political statement, right-wing crazies planned to kill state governors for imposing lockdowns and Trump himself razzed up maskless rallies into superspreader events. At the White House Rose Garden celebration of Amy Coney Barrett’s installation as a Supreme Court Justice, all save the President and First Lady were COVID-tested before attending. Masks and social distancing were ignored. Within days, many were infected, including Rudy Giuliani, former governor Chris Christie, exspokeswoman Kellyanne Conway and even the priest who officiated. Trump himself was hospitalised 72 hours later. Aware that his record is of the year as a whole, Wright makes occasional deviations into other events: the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the Black Lives Matter riots in Portland, Oregon. But always COVID returns, to rear its ugly head. Floyd, after all, might not have been on that street corner had he not lost his job owing to the pandemic. And, predictably, African Americans have suffered the worst in the crisis. Wright’s account is a masterly, fast-paced and highly readable record of an astonishing year – fact-checked no doubt to within an inch of its life. But, as India now takes centre stage, the story isn’t over yet. Let us all pray that there isn’t enough material for a sequel.

‘It’s good to get out to the shops again’

The good Nazi soldier TIBOR FISCHER The Broken House By Horst Krüger Bodley Head £14.99 I feel sorry for publicists sometimes. They know that ‘Look – here’s another book’ isn’t a winning line. So they are driven to extremes of absurdity in the hope of attracting attention. Horst Krüger’s Broken House, we are told, is a ‘forgotten masterpiece in the mould of Alone in Berlin or Stoner’. Well, for a start, Broken House isn’t a novel. It’s a memoir, verging on autobiography. I wonder how forgotten it is in Germany, where it was published in 1966. The comparison to Alone in Berlin rests on the fact that Krüger grew up under Hitler and had a fleeting involvement with a left-wing resistance movement. Now available to the English reader in a translation by the estimable Shaun Whiteside, it is certainly in the running for the title of masterpiece. Broken House is delivered in the crisp, matter-of-fact style you would expect from someone who fought for four years as a German paratrooper and then worked as a journalist. The narrative is a bit disjointed, but then life is too cumbersome to fold up neatly. My only reservation concerns the opening section – a plodding account of Krüger travelling around his Berlin suburb and musing on the past. Perhaps one for hardcore fans of Berlin suburbs. The second section is probably the most powerful part of the book. But it has little to do with life under the Nazis, except maybe as a metaphor; for a paratrooper, Krüger had read lots of poetry. Krüger recounts, in positively masochistic, unsparing detail, the suicide of his sister, Ursula. It’s a masterful dissection of his and the family’s reactions. Nevertheless, as billed, most of Broken House is about existence under the Nazi regime. Krüger ponders the

question of how basically decent Germans like his parents went along with the project. Krüger’s own involvement in the resistance movement is less the result of any ideological conviction, and more a question of doing his best friend, proto-beatnik Wanja, a favour, by acting as a courier. Krüger ends up as a guest of the Gestapo, who don’t rough him up, but merely grill him for months. Unbeknown to him, the Gestapo have been opening his letters for some time, and Krüger is ultimately saved by the thoroughly teenage but solidly German reflections on poetry and philosophy his correspondence contains. Krüger is released to become a paratrooper, while his friend Wanja survives prison and later becomes a reliable journalist in East Germany, lauding the triumphs of socialism in the Middle East. The last section, Day of Judgement, is simply a marvel of reportage about a set of Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt in 1964, as the Germans grudgingly had another go at tidying up the past. Krüger attended in his role as a journalist and explains how it’s very difficult to spot the defendants in the courtroom, because they look like everyone else. He highlights, as others have done, the banality of evil. Beware the accountants: Robert Mulka is ‘SS-Obersturmbannführer and adjutant to camp commander Höss. He’s now in export in Hamburg. He is staying here at the Frankfurter Hof, and, on the days when the court isn’t sitting, he takes the express train to Hamburg to look after his business.’ Krüger ponders what he would have done had he found himself in the SS rather than the Paras. Would he have had the guts to question orders? There may not be very much that is unfamiliar in this account – though I didn’t know about the SS judge who brought charges of brutality against SS men working at Auschwitz: ‘a subject for Ionesco or another absurdist playwright’. Bleak but formidable, Broken House is an unsentimental account of terrible times by a man clearly as hard as nails, struggling to make some sense of human behaviour. Towards the end of the war, after one of his Para friends is unjustly put in front of a firing squad, Krüger deserts and surrenders to the Americans, to whom he gleefully discloses his unit’s positions. He deserts with another Para, whom he persuades by giving him a kick: ‘Strange, I think, you just have to give them a kick and say, “Come on,” and they follow you to the ends of the earth.’ The Oldie June 2021 57



Veronese’s Wedding Feast at Cana (1563): miraculous red wine, previously water, is poured, right, into a ewer and served, left

Theft in Venice NIALL HOBHOUSE Napoleon’s Plunder and the Theft of Veronese’s Feast By Cynthia Saltzman Thames and Hudson £25 Napoleon’s Plunder is history as photo op. Think Gibbon on Instagram. Saltzman’s sharp eyes – for people, settings and dramatic scenery – draw us brilliantly across 250 years and most of continental Europe. Sometimes the focus slips, but that isn’t the point. We start in Venice, at its cultural peak in the 1560s, with Titian finishing the great poesie for Philip II (the series of six were reunited last year at the National Gallery), and Tintoretto about to start the Crucifixion for the Scuola San Rocco. The ambitious Paolo Veronese is commissioned to paint the vast Wedding Feast at Cana, as the sole decoration of the refectory of San Giorgio Maggiore, designed by Palladio and a prelude to his rebuilding, in white marble, the church itself. It was to be the second of Paolo’s four Cenas, the first in Venice, and was

set to become his most talked about. That was partly because the monastery was where visiting grandees to the Republic had long been accommodated. At all events, the scale and the subject of a New Testament feast offered maximum play for his virtuoso skills of composition and colour. A hundred and thirty figures, fashionably dressed and comfortingly secular, are spread on a canvas the width of the hall, extending its space far into the blue sky of the background. The scene itself is freezeframed, at the instant the steward sees in his glass that water has become wine. Saltzman excels in careful descriptions of contracts, pigments, canvases, stretchers and restoration techniques. The shrewd Abbot knew his man, and had specified little beyond Veronese’s personal engagement with the work, and the quality of the ultramarine he sourced to paint the sky. It is no surprise that, in June 1797, during France’s brief occupation of Venice, the painting caught the eye of Claude Berthollet, the most efficient of Napoleon’s commissioners. The Wedding Feast was to appear as sixth on his list of 20 paintings and sculptures to be

surrendered and transported to the Louvre. This was following a treaty signed in May, by which Venice also provided three million francs, two frigates and three ships of the line. Saltzman reveals Napoleon’s cynicism towards the feckless Serenissima, which he had teased with offers of an alliance against the Austrians throughout the Italian campaign. He had secretly traded its independence to Austria even before he had control of it, in exchange for French mastery of the rest of northern Italy, Flanders and the west bank of the Rhine. It was suddenly

‘I wish I’d brought a book or something’ The Oldie June 2021 59



‘But is it a happy sham marriage?’

clear to all Europe that money, ships and paintings were all that he had ever wanted from Venice. After violent dismantlement, involving the demolition of walls and frames in the churches from which they came, the Venetian trophies, now including the Lions of Saint Mark’s, travelled for eight months by boat via Toulon, the Rhone and the Canal du Centre. They arrived, along with paintings from Milan, Ferrara and Rome, and the cream of the Vatican’s antiquities, in time for the opening of the Louvre and the great influx of foreign tourists after the Peace of Amiens. The Wedding Feast, rolled in transit, had needed two years of restoration, including a terrible, horizontal slicing of the canvas, before installation in the Salon Carré. The painting still hangs in the Louvre, in front of the Mona Lisa. The story of how, almost alone among the Italian spoils, it was not returned, is Saltzman’s great set piece. We see events after the return of Louis XVIII through a gorgeous medley of sources: the correspondence and rivalries of the British – Castlereagh, Liverpool, Aberdeen, the Prince Regent; the ever-presence of Metternich; the machinations of Denon, Directeur du Louvre; and, wonderfully, through the eyes of Canova, sent by the Pope to recover the treasures from the Papal States. On repatriation, it is Wellington himself who emerges as the sanest and most powerful voice. He publicly wrote to Castlereagh, saying that the seizures had been ‘contrary to the practices of civilised warfare’ and asking why ‘the powers of Europe … do injustice to their own subjects simply “to conciliate” the French’.

Saltzman is right that Wellington’s admirable strictures were the precursor of the Hague Conventions at the end of the century. Yet, less than a year after he wrote his letter, the British Museum acquired the Elgin Marbles. Just before the Conventions were finally signed, Britain harvested the Benin Bronzes with much the same imperial rhetoric as Napoleon used – and a good deal more bloodshed.

OLDIE NOVEL OF THE MONTH

Boris’s landlord LAURA BEATTY The Paper Lantern By Will Burns

Weidenfeld & Nicolson £14.99 The Paper Lantern is a pub that really exists. Close to Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country retreat, it sits both literally and symbolically at the heart of England. Will Burns’s parents run it and he himself lives and works in it part-time. So this is a work of autofiction. It describes the dream days of the first lockdown when the pub was closed, conjuring in restrained and elegiac prose the ‘sad, amusing, strange, disquieting types’ of its male regulars. On long lockdown walks through the Chilterns, Burns examines the life of the pub and its fragmented community. He asks how England came to have this heart; what is it, exactly, and how was it made? The atmosphere is one of gloomy fatalism, hopelessness, male incapacity and the numbness of drink. Look what we’ve done, Burns seems to say. It’s all shit. He means it literally. Walking slowly out along lanes, whose hedges are hung

with little bags, ‘waste and litter’ were ‘all we were good for. Feckless, endless consumption and its detritus.’ At the heart of the heart is Burns himself, looking at his own life with the weary disillusion of a man staring into the bottom of the beer glass. And he spares himself nothing: his inactivity in the face of the petty malice; the racism; the self-interest of his community; and his own fraudulence (his word, not mine) as ‘the local poet, the namer of birds and trees’. There is no help. Most of all, in this last role as Adam – man’s first and fundamental job, naming and making the world – he proclaims failure. Words don’t work. Names don’t fit things. Halfway through the book, he walks, half-drunk, up to the top of a hill at sunset. As the sun flares, he sees suddenly, among the lives around him, ‘all infinite possibility’. I felt, as I read, a matching flare of hope. Then he enumerates the lives: ‘the dumb and the drunk. The deluded and the dead.’ At first, this book made me angry. It is so full of men who are ‘listless’, ‘incoherent’ and incapable of action. It came with a flier trumpeting tributes from early readers – also men, their names in capital letters because of their heft. A discussion is emerging, apparently, ‘about what it is to be English and a man in the 21st century’. Really? Are we now going to have to listen to you lament your situation? But Burns is more complex than that. There are only two women in his book yet they tower out of it, covered in tattoos and swathed in coloured clothing. They are both mothers, one Burns’s own, the other the mother of a friend. To them and them only is the power of wisdom and the power to act given. While Burns’s mother ‘flourishes’ under lockdown and goes out to clear the hill of its rubbish, his friend’s mother tells him that ‘knowing things as names’ is useless: ‘Put the bloody books away and go outside.’ In fact, Burns is a thinker and a writer of delicate clarity and sensitivity. The book ends where it started, in the reopened pub, with the promise of a companionable evening of cheering and numbing ahead of him. ‘A pint of Landlord, landlord,’ he says to the man who is also his father. The anxious circle of his wandering is closed. I had the feeling that, somewhere along his route, a baton had been passed across the gender divide. It was as if Burns’s unspoken conclusion was ‘It’s too late. We’ve messed up and we can no longer fix it – so I’m giving up. I’m having a drink. Someone tell the women it’s their turn. See what they can do.’ The Oldie June 2021 61



Media Matters

Bad news for Rupert Murdoch

He’s given up plans for a news channel – and the Sun is in decline stephen glover Not long ago I wrote that, at the age of 90, Rupert Murdoch is still on the ball. It’s true. But these days the ball is not often in the back of the net. The latest setback for his company News UK is the aborting of the plan to launch a new, right-wing, rolling news channel. Mr Murdoch – who, 30 years ago, nearly went bust after launching Sky Television – got cold feet, and his chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, got even colder feet. Murdoch had great ambitions for the new station. He hired a big-shot American called David Rhodes to run it. A former President of CBS News, Rhodes is a considerable figure in his business. He must have been a true believer in Murdoch’s dream, to be prepared to decamp to the UK. But that dream is now in ashes, and he steps down in June. Needless to say, all media companies have had a hard time during the pandemic as a result of depressed advertising and lower news-stand sales caused by successive lockdowns. News UK has particular underlying financial challenges. Launching a new channel suddenly seemed too great a risk. The Times and Sunday Times are commercially doing all right and, in my opinion, are as good as they have been in a long time. Digital sales have been advancing smartly. But the two papers produce only modest profits, and are unlikely ever to be huge money-spinners. The largest problem is the Sun, which used to make loads of money. Its circulation continues to fall, and it is no longer the highest-selling newspaper in the country, having been overtaken by the Daily Mail. The latest figures are from February 2020, just before the pandemic, when the paper reported a £68 million loss. My bet is that, despite cost-cutting, the losses have mounted during the past awful year. An amusing diversion is to read the

Twitter effusions of Kelvin MacKenzie, the manic and sometimes inspired editor of the Sun during its heyday, when it sold about four times as many copies as it does now. He describes Brooks as ‘hapless’, and her appointee as editor of the Sun, Victoria Newton, as ‘woke’ and ‘dim’. I wonder whether Murdoch follows the incendiary musings of his former lieutenant, from whom he appears to be estranged. The Sun is far from being his only problem. Times Radio, though worthy and in many ways commendable, has a small audience (the exact size is unknown) and loses money, though not megamillions. I doubt whether it is pulling in many new readers for the Times and Sunday Times, which is its main raison d’être. Murdoch’s other radio stations, which include talkRADIO and Virgin Radio, posted a small loss when figures were last released. So it is really not very surprising that the once swashbuckling Murdoch, with Brooks standing by his side, should have pulled the plug on his right-wing news channel. One possible beneficiary is GB News, chaired by former Murdoch editor Andrew Neil, which should have been launched by the time you read this. Interestingly, GB News will concentrate on talk and chat, and eschew rolling news, which costs a lot of money. News UK is still a large media-player,

‘Harold has just reinvented himself – I still can’t stand the sight of him’

and it has other bows in its quiver, such as the Times Literary Supplement, none of which I have mentioned. There is no question of its going bust. But, under the benign gaze of its nonagenarian proprietor, it is perhaps in gentle retreat. An irony I’ve mentioned previously is that Murdoch, once king of the red-tops, including of course the now defunct News of the World, may one day be best remembered as a loyal custodian of the respectable Times and Sunday Times. Peter McKay wrote engagingly about the ‘Chipping Norton set’ in the May issue. There have been two upheavals that followers of the set might like to know about. One is that in May’s elections Labour won a seat from the Tories in Chipping Norton. This is as astonishing as the news that the moon really is made of cheese. Another development, no less dramatic, is the cloud hanging over the once-warm relationship between David Cameron and the above-mentioned Rebekah Brooks. The two are close neighbours, and prominent members of the set. It was largely through her good offices that he was able to ingratiate himself with Murdoch (then still supporting Labour) before becoming Prime Minister. On one famous occasion, Cameron rode Brooks’s horse, which very oddly had been lent to her by the Metropolitan Police. I doubt they are so friendly now, or pop into each other’s houses, as they were wont to do. The Times and the Sunday Times, for which Brooks is responsible, have been leading the pack in pursuing Cameron over his unedifying connections with the controversial financier Lex Greensill. The preparedness of the queen of the Chipping Norton set to permit the newspapers to hammer her old friend is a point in her favour. The Oldie June 2021 63



History

History’s greatest hits and myths

From Herodotus to Churchill, writers have loved fake news david horspool In his new book, The History Makers, Richard Cohen tells a story from the golden age of historians’ rivalries. That was not so long ago – in the 1960s, when, he was told, the obituaries desk of the Daily Telegraph realised that they didn’t have an obit prepared of the two best-known – and most disputatious – historians of the day, A J P Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper. The tempting idea arose of asking Trevor-Roper to prepare the – anonymous – obit of Taylor. Then, naturally, Taylor was asked in turn if he would like to write Trevor-Roper’s obituary. The wicked plan came to light only when someone on the desk whose task it was to get annual updates of the two pieces sent the Taylor obit to Taylor, and the Trevor-Roper obit to Trevor-Roper. Both were still signed before publication – so the subject would have had the odd thrill of knowing he was reading his rival’s unvarnished view of him. It’s a nice tale but, as Cohen admits, it may not be true. Neither a past editor of the Telegraph nor the present obituaries editor was able to confirm it. It also occurs to me that, having agreed to write an obituary of his nemesis, neither historian can have been unduly shocked to discover that the other had been asked to do the same – unless their vanity, fairly sizeable in both cases, didn’t allow them to consider the possibility. Still, Cohen asks, ‘Why spoil a good tale?’ In that, he is like more than one of his subjects, on an engaging journey across more than two millennia of historical production. The book has already made headlines because its American publisher, Random House, has decided not to publish it because it didn’t contain enough black historians (despite a rewrite). Cohen’s first example, Herodotus, is prime in both senses. Writing in the 5th century BC, Herodotus really was attempting something unprecedented in

his ‘inquiry’ – historía – combining narrative, eyewitness account, travelogue and ethnography to give a sense of the past. But he too liked a good tale. Cohen gives a selection, including the story of Xerxes rewarding and then executing a ship’s helmsman. The helmsman had saved the king’s life by telling him that if others jumped overboard, the vessel would be light enough to make port. ‘He adds that readers should not regard it as a historical fact; the tale is included because it embodies how a tyrant exercises “justice”.’ And, no doubt, because it is a good tale. There is some good philosophical backing for adopting this practice of liking an instructive yarn, even if historians have frowned on it since Thucydides took up Herodotus’s baton and approached history more seriously. Cohen tells us that, in his Republic, Plato declared that ‘Myth is the “Noble Lie” or pious fiction that binds society together’. Winston Churchill was not known as a Platonist. Still, his defence of including Alfred the Great burning the cakes in his History of the EnglishSpeaking Peoples, even though it was almost certainly not true, strikes the Platonic note: ‘At times of crisis, myths have their historical importance.’ Most historians are not so sanguine as Herodotus or Churchill – or Cohen – about putting myth and history in the same cocktail-shaker. Serious writers have tried to make a science of history for a very long time, with mixed results.

Plato declared, ‘Myth is the “Noble Lie” that binds society together’

Partly, the difficulty for scientific historians is that confining themselves to matters that can be strictly verified or, better still, counted, leaves a lot out. As the great Dutch medievalist Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) – on whom Cohen sadly doesn’t focus – put it, ‘There is not a more dangerous tendency in history than that of representing the past as if it were a rational whole and dictated by clearly defined interests.’ That was why Huizinga looked at poetry and art to get a sense of 15th-century life, rather than at the charters and documents his contemporaries favoured. The ideal is a historian with both iron and roses in his or her soul; one who can read a balance sheet and a ballad to understand their subject. Though our standards of proof are always improving, and old orthodoxies are constantly challenged, those qualities can still be discerned in past historians as well as living ones. Cohen singles out two historians ‘in pearls’ who, as women writing in an overwhelmingly male, mid-20th-century environment, took refuge behind their initials: C V (Veronica) Wedgwood, and C (Cecil) Woodham Smith (although, with a name like that, she didn’t have to bother). Cohen quotes Wedgwood’s fellow historian A L Rowse, who taught her ‘not only a mastery of research, but maturity of judgement, with a literary capacity not common in academic writing. She wrote indeed to be read.’ To write to be read may be the best advice for any historian. Meanwhile, the qualities Rowse identifies are the ones that make some old historians still resonate, while others speak only to their long-dead contemporaries. Richard Cohen’s The History Makers: 2,500 Years of Shaping the Past is published on 22nd June (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) The Oldie June 2021 65



Johnny Grimond: Words and Stuff

An epidemic of disease names

TOM PLANT

If this summer is to be like last summer, we are in for a show of sublime roses, some bearing women’s names that seem to me almost as romantic as their exquisite blooms and beguiling scents. I know nothing about the lives of Zéphirine Drouhin, Louise Odier, Félicité Parmentier and Mme Isaac Pereire, to mention just a few; only that they have given their names to roses. But that is enough for me. I admit that not all are quite so sensuous, and that the high-street associations of Dorothy Perkins, for instance, bring an element of bathos to the romantic ensemble. Though prone to mildew, she – the rose – is lovely, which is why, in 1919, the company stole its name. But luckily there are plenty of others as well-known, including Mary, Queen of Scots, Anne Boleyn and even Lady Godiva, whose namesake is described in my catalogue as ‘blush white’ – possibly the only joke among the ramblers. Whether blushing or boasting, who would not be flattered to be chosen to lend her name to a rose? However, it’s one thing to be immortalised as a flower, a ship, an island or even a distant planet; rather different if it’s a disease. Yet the need to identify illnesses by relatively simple, non-jargon terms has led to the widespread adoption of people’s names for medical purposes. Syndromes from Aarskog-Scott to Zumbusch, diseases from Abercrombie to Zahorsky and symptoms from Aaron to

Smutty TV A recent TV show by the former Top Gear team was called A Massive Hunt. How Clarkson, Hammond and May, the public-school version of Last of the Summer Wine without the charm or wit, must have laughed. There is a trend for nudgenudge TV-show titles. The current crop includes Schitt’s

Winterbottom all take their names from people. Their numbers run into the hundreds. And no embarrassment seems to be caused: indeed, those who provide these eponyms are said to be delighted. Most of them are doctors of some kind, but not all. For example, Munchausen syndrome, the name for a disorder in which the patient suffers from a non-existent disease, has its origins in a fictional character, Baron Munchausen, noted for telling tall stories. Another example is Giacomo Casanova. Besides a lot of children, he left behind the term Casanova fracture – often a feature of Don Juan syndrome – which is used to describe injuries acquired by falling clumsily from an upstairs window. A type of motor neurone disease gets two other names from real people – one a patient and one a doctor. In America, it’s often called Lou Gehrig’s disease, after a famous baseball player whose career was cut short by it in 1939, when he was 36. In France, it’s known as maladie de Charcot, after Jean-Martin Charcot, the neurologist who, in 1874, coined the term amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, by which the affliction is also known. It was Charcot who, sometime after 1865, proposed that the name of James Parkinson should be given to ‘shaking palsy’, which Parkinson had been the first to describe as a neurological syndrome about 50 years earlier. Charcot also

Creek, PEN15, Trucking Hell, Pawn Stars and Hardcore Pawn. Snigger. Even now, latte-drinking creatives are thinking up titles before fitting a programme round it. It’s not new. Remember when Channel 4 introduced TFI Friday, claiming it stood for Thanks Four It’s Friday, when we all knew otherwise? Where TV gets edgy, Hollywood follows. The romcom Meet the Parents set the scene by creating a central character called Gaylord Focker, a play on words so funny it was stretched out to three movies. Perhaps it came from the porn industry. To attract a

proposed that similar recognition should be given to one of his pupils, Gilles de la Tourette, for his work on the maladie des tics, which was then named Tourette’s syndrome. Known sometimes as the ‘founder of modern neurology’, and less complimentarily as the ‘Napoleon of the neuroses’, Charcot was himself honoured in the creation of at least 15 medical eponyms. Plenty of other diseases acquired their eponyms in the 18th, 19th and early-20th centuries. Bell’s palsy was one of five discoveries named after a Scottish surgeon, Charles Bell (1774-1842). Down syndrome got its name from an English doctor, John Down (1828-96), who first provided its classification. Huntington’s disease was a tribute to Charles Huntington, an American doctor, for work he did in 1872. And Alzheimer’s disease entered the medical lexicon in the early 1900s, soon after a German psychiatrist, Alois Alzheimer (18641915), had become the first to publish details of a case of ‘presenile dementia’. However, the use of medical eponyms goes back much further than the 18th century. The word ‘claudication’, meaning limping, is sometimes said to derive from the Roman emperor Claudius, who had a pronounced limp. And the term Caesarean, as used in obstetrics, originated (in 1615) in reference to the delivery of Julius Caesar. That section is a wonderful saver of lives, but I’d rather be a rose.

wider audience, porn films began to parody mainstream Hollywood titles with their own puns: Shaving Ryan’s Privates, Forrest Hump, Pocahotass, Kinky Kong and ET the Extra Testicle. This inevitably fed into the mainstream, and soon

SMALL DELIGHTS The satisfaction of seeing the cable being whisked into the vacuum cleaner at the press of a button. PETER JONES, BOSWORTH Email life’s small delights to editorial@theoldie.co.uk

middle-aged dads were sporting shirts emblazoned with FCUK, the new ‘edgy’ brand name for high-street retailer French Connection. Is any of this really shocking? If not, what’s the point? To most intelligent viewers, it’s not big and it’s not clever. No doubt TV executives think they are pushing back an imaginary boundary, like Kenneth Tynan, allegedly the first person to say the f-word on television, in 1965. You can be sure that someone, somewhere has thought up the title Tits Up – and is working out how to turn it into a dating show for birdwatchers. MARK SOLOMONS The Oldie June 2021 67


Arts FILM HARRY MOUNT THE FATHER (12A) Released 11th June Warning – don’t go and see The Father if you’re feeling low. It’s a real gloomfest. Anthony Hopkins rightly won an Oscar – the oldest-ever winner at 83 – for his performance. He plays Anthony, the father who doesn’t realise his dementia is snowballing so badly that he’ll have to leave his London flat and his daughter, Anne (Oscar-nominated Olivia Colman), for a care home. That’s really about the size of it. Not much else happens. It seems strange that writer/director Florian Zeller – who wrote the original French play Le Père – and Christopher Hampton should have won Best Adapted Screenplay. The script is a bit boring and flat, and has that deadening feeling of having been imported from a play. There are momentary flashpoints – Anne’s husband (a scarily menacing Rufus Sewell) starts bullying the ailing Anthony – but they never develop into proper plot lines. There is one impressive aspect to the screenplay – the way different actors play the same character on several occasions.

‘He was a great actor’ 68 The Oldie June 2021

Welsh wizard: Anthony Hopkins (with Olivia Colman) gives an acting masterclass

It’s a convincing, original way of showing how Anthony is losing his mind; how he mixes up his two daughters and confuses his son-in-law with his doctor. But this isn’t enough to save the film from a lot of long, dull chunks. Anthony Hopkins’s supreme acting, though, does nearly save it. Hopkins likes to tell the story of what Katharine Hepburn told him when they were filming The Lion in Winter (1968): ‘Don’t act,’ she said. ‘Read the lines. Just be. Just speak the lines.’ Hopkins often does this in The Father and his other films: he underacts, with long spells of silence and sitting still. But then he’s suddenly extremely active, firing up the little tics and big bursts of anger all humans suffer from. In The Father, he shifts shockingly from low-temperature gentleness to explosive rage. One moment, he’s shuffling round the kitchen, making coffee, humming Casta diva from Bellini’s Norma. The next, he’s bellowing at his daughter for refusing to go along with his demented view of the world. Hopkins often combines the quiet with the loud: in the middle of a pause, there’ll be a sudden jerk of his head.

When his son-in-law viciously slaps him, his silent flinching from the slaps is more upsetting than the slaps themselves. His charm is intensified by the gentle, fluting, perfectly enunciated voice – more Welsh here than in his other films, perhaps because it’s set in Britain, not America. Like Hopkins, Olivia Colman can tug at the heartstrings without being slushily sentimental. No other actress is as good at providing a crestfallen face that collapses slowly into tears – an expression Peep Show fans will recognise from her role as Sophie Chapman, crying at yet another of Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell)’s evasive, pathetic attacks on their relationship. Olivia Williams, too, gives a masterclass in understated sympathy as Anthony’s nurse. It’s almost worth seeing The Father just for the quality of the acting, particularly Hopkins’s. But, in the end, it’s one of those films that thinks there’s a virtue in sharing the boredom and melancholy of real life – accentuated by the hell of dementia. Art should lift us out of the dreariness of the day-to-day, not rub our faces in it. Anthony Hopkins’s acting is on a high artistic plane; the screenplay of The Father isn’t.


GARY SMITH

THEATRE WILLIAM COOK LOVE LETTERS THEATRE ROYAL HAYMARKET Gosh, it feels good to be back in a proper theatre again! It’s all very well watching plays on YouTube or whatever, but nothing beats the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd. Granted, going to see a play is still rather a subdued affair: drinks brought to your seat in plastic cups; social distancing throughout the theatre. And granted, this is rather a subdued play: no set to speak of, just two actors sitting at desks, reading out a series of letters stretching over half a century. Put like that, it sounds deadly dull – and, having never seen A R Gurney’s Love Letters before, I didn’t have high hopes. I was delighted to be proved wrong. This is a moving, engrossing drama, graced by two superb performances from Jenny Seagrove and Martin Shaw. You’ll have seen both these actors on TV countless times; there’s always a special thrill about seeing such familiar figures in the flesh. But there’s a lot more to this tender drama than the novelty of watching two telly stalwarts up close and personal. Shaw is 76; Seagrove is 63. Although they could both easily pass for 20 years younger, there’s a subtlety and vulnerability about their work in Love Letters that comes only with age. Good looks are an asset for an actor starting out, but they can easily become a burden, confining actors to superficial roles and restricting their dramatic range. Shaw is still just as handsome and Seagrove is still just as beautiful, but there’s now a fragility about them that adds a new dimension to their art. Love Letters was written in 1988 by Gurney, an American, as an epistolary novel. But when he sent it to the New Yorker, they said, ‘We don’t publish plays.’ So he tried it out as a rehearsed reading. It went down a treat and it’s since been staged loads of times, all round the world, starring everyone from Charlton Heston to Mia Farrow. As Gurney pointed out, one reason it’s performed so often is that it’s so easy (and cheap) to stage: ‘This is a play, or rather a sort of play, which needs no theatre, no lengthy rehearsal, no special set, no memorisation of lines and no commitment from its actors beyond the night of the performance.’ This has made it a useful standby in any crisis. This production premièred before the last lockdown,

Professionals: Martin Shaw and Jenny Seagrove in AR Gurney’s Love Letters

when theatres were open but forward planning was impossible. But it would be unfair to say all the actors need to do is turn up and read the lines. Shaw and Seagrove have scripts to hand, but this isn’t just reading – this is acting. Watch their faces as they listen to each other and see the growing sadness in their eyes. Love Letters tracks the correspondence between two WASP teenagers, Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, whose fledgling courtship is thwarted when they’re sent away to separate boarding schools. Although they only ever meet up a few times thereafter, they remain in touch by post, and their long-distance relationship becomes increasingly intimate, even as their lives diverge. Andrew follows his head; Melissa follows her heart. Yet neither of them ends up truly happy. He becomes a lawyer, then a senator. Her world unravels. They both marry other people, but they really open up only to each other, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that they hardly ever come face to face. Though we yearn for them to get together, as the play evolves we begin to wonder if these letters have taken them down a different path, to a place where they know each other too well for romance. Like all the best plays, Love Letters raises all sorts of imponderable questions about our own lives. What would have happened if we’d been bolder? What would have happened if we’d dared to do things differently? What would have happened if we’d married our first love? In some respects, this is a profoundly pessimistic story. Neither character is

able to break free from the shackles of their upbringing, however hard they try. Yet it reminds us that there’s nothing more precious in this world than loving someone, and that reminder sends you out on the sort of special high you get only from seeing first-class actors on stage. Yes, you could say this is only half a play – it would work almost as well on the radio. But, in these trying times, half a great play is infinitely better than half of nothing. Love Letters made me eager to read more A R Gurney, and see more of Martin Shaw and Jenny Seagrove. Above all, it made me resolve to sit down and write a letter to a lifelong friend.

RADIO VALERIE GROVE Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday on 24th May came along just in time, because I’d practically given up listening to radio altogether – avoiding news bulletins. Then I heard a trail for Sean Latham’s It Ain’t Me You’re Lookin’ For. Latham, director of the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies at Tulsa, took us at a gallop through the life via the songs, and it was excellent. On the birthday weekend, Bob Dylan Verbatim plundered the archives for Bob’s voice. Earlier, a play, Dinner with Dylan, by ‘Bobaholic’ Jon Canter, introduced us to the obsessive world of ‘Bobcats’. So a Dylan fest for everyone for whom Dylan is part of the soundtrack of their lives. I’d started out voting against Bob in my school’s 1964 debate ‘This house prefers Jimmy Reed to Bob Dylan’ – several boys were early Dylanologists – but I felt The Oldie June 2021 69


GERAINT LEWIS/ALAMY

‘These are my children: Hurry Up, Come On and Let’s Go’

vindicated last year when Bob sang a bluesy tribute song, Goodbye Jimmy Reed, on his Rough and Rowdy Ways CD. By 1965, I was Bob’s votary, dressing like Suze Rotolo, the girl on the Freewheelin’ album cover. I followed him to concerts: he was cute in ’66; inaudible at Wembley in 2000. Now, I just marvel at the whole phenomenon with suitable reverence. The hokum of his early self-invention; the elusiveness; the songs. Here’s the story of Dinner with Dylan. In 2017, the brilliant Jon Canter, of Radio 4’s Lives of Boswell, bumped into Richard Curtis, as they both collected tickets for Dylan at the Palladium. They bonded as fellow Bobcats. Curtis told Canter a true story, which Canter’s play relates. Curtis had arranged to have supper the night before the Dylan gig with two actors, Kerry Shale (American) and Lucas Hare (British) (who in real life do the Bobcats’ podcast, Is It Rolling Bob?, which I commend to podcast-fanciers). In an otherwise empty Bengali restaurant off the Whitechapel Road, Curtis reveals his secret: guess who’s coming to dinner? Bob’s manager Jeff Rosen, yes; and Rosen is bringing Bob, too… ‘Bob loves to be incognito in obscure places.’ Also, Curtis has doublebooked his diary: he’s supposed to be dining with Eileen Atkins – so she is summoned to join them by Uber. The main characters, all playing themselves, vie with one another, swapping trivia about His Bobness. Shale, who mimics Dylan wonderfully, promises he won’t impersonate Bob in front of him – ‘How crass do you think I am?’ They agree not to ask Bob stupid questions like ‘Are you married or not now?’ or ‘How can you stand the weight of all that worship, Bob?’ But what about Dame Eileen? She’s not a Dylan fan, particularly. She told Curtis, ‘I quite like Blowin’ in the Wind.’ But at least her conversation will be real. When she arrives, she listens to their nerdy discourse and says, ‘Sorry, this is 70 The Oldie June 2021

absolutely like an AA meeting.’ Huge fun. Produced and directed by Clive Brill. You may think the ultimate accolade for Dylan was the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature (he didn’t attend the ceremony: ‘I’m just a hardworking musician whose work lives in performance’). But radio-heads prefer the Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour (2006-9). You can still hear all the episodes online. He took subjects like money, mothers, drinking, weather and divorce. And Bob would rasp out the Wikidata about every song and singer he’d ever listened to, from Howlin’ Wolf to Sinatra. Radio forged him, he wrote in Chronicles, and he proved to be an inspired, companionable broadcaster.

TELEVISION ROGER LEWIS I was shocked to learn Paul Ritter had gone to his reward, at the age of 54. I’d assumed he’d be around for decades more. Everyone enjoyed him as the father in Friday Night Dinner (‘A lovely bit of squirrel, Jackie’), and personally I appreciated him as the pathologist in Vera and as the sneering physicist in Chernobyl. Ritter was very good impersonating Jimmy Perry in a Dad’s Army biopic, discussing constipationalleviating techniques with Arthur Lowe. He was one of those character actors who improved any scene he was in. He could be slimy and sinister or noble and forthright. And, of course, he could be funny. He commanded attention without making a fuss about it. Within days I was reeling because Helen McCrory was also dead, at only 52. Depth and sparkle, perfect enunciation

The modern Dorothy Tutin: Helen McCrory (1968-2021)

and a proud, sophisticated taste – these are the qualities I’ll remember her for. She was a dark dynamo, her eyes looking straight ahead. Whether she was portraying Cherie Blair, a civil-rights lawyer in Fearless or the Prime Minister in a David Hare series, audiences were never left in doubt about her intelligence. As with Ritter, I expected McCrory, who’d filled a place left by Dorothy Tutin, to be a fixture for the rest of my life. Actually, I’m still in mourning for Caroline Aherne, who died in 2016. I hope somebody is researching a full biography and putting together a decent documentary; Caroline Aherne at the BBC, presented by John Thomson, was skimpy – a random selection of old sketches and clips anyone can find on YouTube. Two things struck me. First, how plain she was early on, before a quite dramatic nose job shifted her features, creating an elfin beauty. Secondly, how discomfiting her comedy was, as she said the unsayable in the guise of an Irish nun or as Mrs Merton, the old lady with a chat show. ‘Tell me, George Best, was it all that running about on the pitch that made you so thirsty?’ I hope Johnny Vegas is looking after himself, at least. Normally averse to comedians’ documentaries, I thoroughly enjoyed Carry on Glamping, in which Vegas bought and restored vintage buses, turning them into luxurious if bijou self-catering units situated in a bleak Yorkshire field. The project initially seemed doomed – Johnny bought a Maltese coach on eBay at two in the morning while drunk, not realising Malta was an island halfway to Africa. It cost him tens of thousands to transport the rusty vehicle back to Britain, a journey taking five months, as the ferry caught fire. Bumbling about, Johnny is as funny and amiable as Les Dawson. He got stuck inside a hollow tree. He blew up his kitchen by boiling tins of condensed milk – the stain on the ceiling resembled ‘a Jackson Pollock dirty protest’. He grew tearful and sentimental when he saw a horse, as his late father liked horses. But he also had a keen aesthetic eye, knowing about craftsmanship, chrome trims, original light fittings, fifties shapes and materials. His mother told him to stop wasting time in game shows and stand-up gigs and do some real acting. She’s right. What a classic Falstaff Johnny Vegas could be. These days, of course, you don’t need to die to disappear. I was watching Viewpoint – the one about police surveillance, a job made easier by the fact that nobody in Manchester possesses a pair of curtains – when the star Noel Clarke fell in the Me


Nick Downes

‘That one’s for faking the moon landing’

Too soup and the programme was abruptly cancelled, and to hell with viewers or the rest of the cast and crew. Not that the series seemed any good, but surely ITV was overreacting and panicking; yet rumours and grievances rather than due process these days hold sway. Coincidentally, Viewpoint was about bad feeling among the neighbours; a lot of snooping and the piecing together of false narratives. The body was in the freezer all along. How many wish the Mitford Sisters had been strangled at birth? Regarding The Pursuit of Love, I remember Alan Bates as Uncle Matthew, horsewhipping the children. Rosamund Pike was Linda. Now it’s Lily James being awkwardly highspirited and sullen, emotionally up and down like a lavatory seat. If the actress can manage anything other than girlishness – she was girlish in Downton Abbey, girlish in War and Peace – I have yet to detect it. Dominic West was Uncle Matthew, outraged if a fellow came out with non-U

words like mirror and mantelpiece. Were these people not aristocrats, hence eccentric rather than boringly inbred and mad, they’d be locked in rubber rooms and compulsorily sterilised. The other point is that comic prose can’t be adapted – onscreen, Nancy Mitford suffers as Evelyn Waugh or Kingsley Amis suffers and everything becomes flat farce.

MUSIC RICHARD OSBORNE SEMELE MARGARET CATCHPOLE Two catastrophes struck England near the start of Queen Anne’s reign. The first was the Great Storm of 1703, a categorytwo hurricane that killed more people and felled more oaks than the Great Storm of 1987. The second was the arrival of Italian opera. No lives were lost when the theatre

wars triggered by the Italian insurgency caused the suppression of a memorable operatic treatment of the Semele story. It was a blow to the opera’s creators, William Congreve and John Eccles, our longestserving Master of the King’s (and Queen’s) Music. What was left dead in the nest was English opera in its fledgling form. Happily, a superb new recording of the opera has just been released by the Academy of Ancient Music, handsomely packaged with one of those trademark 200-page hardback books that alone are worth the cost of the set. You won’t find here any of those show-stopping numbers for which Handel’s later setting of Congreve’s libretto is famous. Yet listening to so finely crafted a work, you can easily understand why many believe that its demise helped deny our literature-rich land its own bespoke operatic tradition. Some 250 years would pass before the tradition was re-engaged by Benjamin Britten. And not only by Britten. A 1970s chamber opera inspired by the remarkable life of a Suffolk labourer’s daughter has just appeared in a worldpremière recording on the budget-price Naxos label. The in many ways exemplary Margaret Catchpole (1762-1819) was twice condemned to the gallows, and twice reprieved; a train of events triggered by her obsession with seaman smuggler Will Laud, a troubling figure, later shot dead by a prison guard. Deported to Australia in 1801 but later pardoned, this – as it turned out – deeply charitable woman retains to this day a small but honoured place in Australian history. The source of her story is Richard Cobbold’s widely-read biographical novel Margaret Catchpole: A Suffolk Girl. Rector of Wortham in Suffolk from 1825 to his death in 1877, Cobbold was a scion of the Ipswich brewing family for whom the girl worked. Indeed, it was Cobbold’s mother, in cahoots with the family doctor, who twice helped save her from execution – this in an age when social pressure could temper judicial rulings, rather than hysterically pre-empting them, as often happens nowadays. Cobbold’s novel had numerous spin-offs, including two dramatisations and a silent film made in Australia in 1911. It was even in the mix in 1947, as E M Forster discussed with Britten ideas for his next opera. (They turned instead to Melville’s Billy Budd.) What Britten passed over, a Suffolk arts society later commissioned. The text would be the work of Ronald Fletcher (1921-92), a professor of sociology at York University, who had settled in East The Oldie June 2021 71


well as in the way the Suffolk scenes take on an entirely different tint from those on the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales. It’s by the Hawkesbury River, in a poignant recapitulation of the opera’s opening scenes on Suffolk’s River Orwell, that Cobbold’s tale reaches its idyllic close – an ahistorical end, albeit one that conceals within it a larger imaginative truth. The recording is conducted by Julian Perkins. Back on home turf, it’s he who conducts that dazzling account of the Eccles. Is there no end to these coincidences?

GOLDEN OLDIES ELAINE PITTUCK KINKY MEMORIES

ZIP LEXING/ALAMY

Margaret Catchpole (1762-1819): the horse-rustler who escaped the gallows

Anglia to pursue a successful career in writing and broadcasting. (His edition of Cobbold’s classic Biography of a Victorian Village had been published two years before the opera.) The music, meanwhile, would be by Stephen Dodgson (1924-2013), whose interest in Cobbold’s novel had been sparked some years earlier by Jane, his Suffolk-born wife. An accomplished composer of songs, and instrumental and chamber music, Dodgson was a much-loved figure within the BBC. I knew him as one of producer John Lade’s most trusted contributors to Radio 3’s Record Review, though it was his skill as a composer of incidental music for radio dramas that made the greater call on his time. There is an echo of these radio-derived skills in Margaret Catchpole, where Fletcher’s expertly crafted distillation of Cobbold’s novel – available as a download on the Naxos website – is set by Dodgson to music that’s as telling as it is unobtrusive. It was much the same with Eccles and Congreve. Several of our more perceptive critics suspected that Dodgson’s compositions went wider and deeper than any of us imagined. Margaret Catchpole – by far the largest of his works – confirms that suspicion. Like Britten, he knew and loved the Suffolk landscape. Like Britten, he had the gift of needing very few instruments – Margaret Catchpole is scored for just 11 players – to paint pictures and distil moods. We hear this in the several richly imagined instrumental interludes, as 72 The Oldie June 2021

One spring evening in the mid-sixties, a group of school friends and I went to see the Kinks at the Granada Cinema in Walthamstow, London. In those days, cinemas doubled up as venues for live acts. It was the first time I’d been allowed to go to a concert without adult supervision, as my parents were worried about the horror stories of young people being crushed as they surged to the stage to get close to their idols. However, I was under strict instructions to meet my lovely dad outside the cinema as soon as the concert finished. The show was everything we had hoped for, with Ray and Dave Davies living up to their reputations, both musically and sartorially, in their velvet jackets and frilly shirts! As the evening came to an end, I noticed that it had finished ahead of time and I told my friends, ‘I’m going to find Ray.’ I walked round the side of the cinema to find that the ten-foot-high iron gates,

usually kept locked, had been left open. So I approached a partially frosted ground-floor window. To my amazement, the small top window was open and I could see and hear Ray Davies talking. Just as I realised my good fortune, a burly bouncer approached. I threw my autograph book through the window and shouted for Ray to sign quickly and return it. Sadly, the bouncer reached me before the book and I was duly launched outside the gate into the arms of my rather angry dad. Fast-forward about 40 years and, still an ardent Kinks fan, I went with a friend to see Ray’s solo performance at the Ipswich Regent. After the concert, as my friend and I were waiting for her husband to collect us, a stretch limo slowly glided to a halt in front of us, the electric window slid down – and there was Ray! Without a moment’s hesitation, I explained that I had given him my autograph book over 40 years earlier and it hadn’t been returned. Ray immediately saw the joke. He smiled that thin, Ray Davies smile and pretended to retrieve the book from his jacket’s inside pocket. At which point, a ‘minder’ once again intervened, saying, ‘That’s enough,’ and the blackened window closed. So Ray, if by any chance you read The Oldie, can I have my book back, please? Rachel Johnson is away

The Kinks: from left John Dalton, Dave Davies, Ray Davies (in front), Mick Avory


Above: Turner’s Folkestone from the Sea, c 1822-4. English smugglers receive gin barrels from French sailors by moonlight. An anti-smuggling Coast Blockade boat approaches, right. Below: hall of Turner’s House, Twickenham, inspired by John Soane

EXHIBITIONS HUON MALLALIEU

TATE TURNER’S HOUSE EXHIBITION/ LUCINDA MACPHERSON

A SELECTION OF REAL SHOWS The exhibitions I’ve written about in this column in recent months have mostly been rescheduled or extended. They are now open, subject to change. A little urgency is required to book for the Pre-Raphaelite drawings and watercolours at the Ashmolean (as featured in the February Oldie), as it is now due to close on 20th June. However, Epic Iran at the Victoria & Albert Museum lasts until 30th August. And Hockney’s Spring will now run well past spring’s departure at the RA (to 22nd August). The National Gallery has rescheduled Dürer’s Journeys (from 20th November 20 to 21st February). The Making of Rodin is at Tate Modern (until 31st October). How Cecil Beaton would have enjoyed the relocation of a celebration of his work from one great palace to another. After a three-month visit to the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Cecil Beaton: Celebrating Celebrity has arrived at Blenheim, where over 50 of his ever-stylish fashion photographs and portraits from the twenties to the seventies are on view until

1st August. Another Beaton show, Bright Young Things, which closed in London after a week thanks to the pandemic, is at the Millennium Gallery, Sheffield (until 4th July). The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, is running linked shows on the senses, with Taste closing on 1st August, Scent on 29th August and Virtue, Vice and the Senses: Prints 1540-1660 on 30th August. Alas, plans for some actual touching and sniffing cannot be realised. Shortly before the first lockdown, I had the privilege of visiting Turner’s House, Twickenham, where I had a private view of half a dozen of his paintings and watercolours. Now, until 5th September, with booking (www. turnershouse.org), anyone may have a

chance of an almost as exclusive a communion with 11 watercolours and prints of coastal subjects. It is an opportunity not to be missed to see Turner’s works in the house he designed. At Compton Verney (until 5th September), there is a show of heartwarming work by the scientist, farmer and, eventually, painter Mary Newcomb (1922-2008). She was deeply embedded in nature, as was her fellow East Anglian artist and plantsman John Nash, whose landscapes are at the Towner, Eastbourne (until 26th September). Insofar as blocks are bustable in present circumstances, likely candidates include Nero: the man behind the myth at the British Museum (to 24th October), and the relaunched Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser at the V&A (until 31st December).

‘One thing about Mondrian – you always know where you are with him’ The Oldie June 2021 73



Pursuits GARDENING DAVID WHEELER PASTURES NEW We’re garden-hunting – not househunting. When we bought Bryan’s Ground 28 years ago, we spent two hours outside before setting foot indoors. Since the beginning of April, we have viewed more than half a dozen properties. There’s the ‘romantic’ – a tea-planter’s lodge that’s dragged its anchor from Simla to six lush acres in the Shropshire hills, but which needs a deep pocket to modernise (sensitively) and restore its 1950s garden. There’s the ‘done and dusted’ – a Georgian village house with barely an acre: the pipe-and-slippers option. There’s the ill-situated Gothic curiosity – too small and deprived of sunshine soon after midday. There’s the former MP’s property – perfect were it not plonked on top of a hill 800ft above sea level, exposed to every gale in the northern hemisphere. And there was the ultimate all-rounder, which we tried to buy, but we were left marooned by a vigorous bidding war. The problem is we can go more or less anywhere we like. We’re corks afloat on life’s ocean. Boxes to tick are rural situation, no light pollution, no road noise and no nearby intensive-farming sheds. Is that asking too much? No – not on the Welsh borders or deeper into Wales, the land of my fathers where I have previously lived and made a garden. While most prospective house-buyers aim straight for the kitchen and bathrooms, I hobble around the garden with a pH meter, trying to establish the soil’s acidity levels. It needs to register 6.5 or less if I’m to maintain the deep blue colours of my extensive hydrangea collection. The land also needs to cosset a woodland glade filled with Japanese maples, dogwoods, liquidambars, sorbus, flowering cherries and wild roses.

Inland situations mean cold nights, which hydrangeas dislike. At Bryan’s Ground, we can expect a damaging frost up to the end of May, and the Last Night of the Proms can bring autumn’s first chill. Coastal spots could bestow saltladen winds prone to ‘burning’ susceptible foliage. Near-coastal or estuary plots are ideal, but they tend to bear inflated price tags. We are supposed to be downsizing, but who can resist Shangri-La, tucked away in its own protected landscape? My partner is younger and fitter. Only when the pH meter has given a satisfactory reading do I ask the vendor about other essential details: the nearest railway station (a few London days every month are deemed essential); the whereabouts of the doctor’s surgery; the nearest dispensing chemist and the closest hospital with A&E facilities – I am, after all, approaching my 76th birthday. The weekly tuck can be delivered almost anywhere these days, but I wouldn’t want to drive far to buy petrol for the lawnmower and essential gardening sundries. A good, local plant nursery and a few exceptional gardens open to the public would be a bonus. While having frequently bought trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs and seeds by mail

Weep no more: the handkerchief tree

order, I need these days to satisfy myself about an expensive plant’s health and composure before writing the cheque. There will be some disappointments. The seedling tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) I planted 20 years ago flowered for the first time last summer. Similarly, the ravishingly beautiful Davidia involucrata (the so-called handkerchief or dove tree) flowered only after 12 years. Can I repeat the trick? The answer is to plant with hope and aim for satisfaction – if not one’s own, then a future generation’s. No effort is wasted. At the time of writing, the hunt continues. But, by the time you read these words, I may well be found on frail, bent knees, wielding fork and spade anew. Stay tuned. David’s Instagram account is @hortusjournal

KITCHEN GARDEN SIMON COURTAULD SWEET POTATOES Sweet potatoes may have been around when I was young, but I don’t think I was aware of them until about 20 years ago. In fact, they have been grown in Europe since Columbus brought sweet potatoes back from the West Indies, half a century before the first common potato arrived here from Peru with the Spanish conquistadors. Potatoes they may both be called, but they are not related. The sweet potato belongs to the family of flowers that includes morning glory and convolvulus, the invasive bindweed. I have noticed that many of the sweet potatoes sold in shops have been grown in America – they are the state vegetable of Alabama and Louisiana – but China has by far the largest share of the global market. For the amateur gardener, sweet potatoes are usually grown from The Oldie June 2021 75


what are known as slips – leafy cuttings taken from the tubers and partly immersed in water to promote a root system. This can be achieved from shop-bought tubers, so long as they have not been sprayed with an anti-sprouting agent. Slips will be more reliable from commercial growers, who can also supply ‘super plugs’, already rooted, which will grow more quickly. Ready to plant out now, these will probably benefit from a week or two under protective cover if the soil is still cold. Watering and sun are important for successful growth. The foliage and stems will spread around the plant, and after three or four months, when the leaves turn yellow and die back, the sweet potatoes should be ready to be harvested. Of the different varieties, most, such as Beauregard, Bonita and Evangelina, have orange flesh; Tahiti has purple skin and flesh. Perhaps most importantly, sweet potatoes claim to be something of a health-giving miracle, with levels of dietary fibre and vitamin A much higher than the ordinary potato. Sweet potatoes are said to help in controlling blood pressure and, with high betacarotene levels, to support the immune system and reduce the risk of prostate cancer. And they make very good chips.

COOKERY ELISABETH LUARD A GREEK BEARING GIFTS

ELISABETH LUARD

Those of us who won’t be leaving home this summer (me too) can console ourselves with Yasmin Khan’s sparkling new food-and-travel cookbook, Ripe Figs. Glorious photographs illuminate the recipes – nothing fancy, just what you’d hope to find in a taverna on a Greek island or in a remote village in Anatolia. Khan is a civil-rights activist and a regular on Radio 4; her earlier cookbook Zaitoun (named for a variety of thyme endemic to Palestine) established her as a master story-teller. There are tales from the island of Ikaria, where Communist dissidents (artists and intellectuals, who else?) were exiled during Greece’s bloody civil war. The islanders’ self-sufficient way of life – a year-round growing season, goats for cheese and meat, olive groves, vineyards and a taste for afternoon naps – proved so appealing to the egalitarian newcomers that they never went home. Ikarian briam Sun-blitzed vegetables cooked in olive oil with cinnamon, thyme and oregano. Serves 4-6 2 large, firm aubergines, thickly sliced Olive oil (plenty) 76 The Oldie June 2021

and bake for 50-60 minutes till the top is golden brown. Remove and leave to firm before unmoulding. Meanwhile, prepare the topping: in a small pan, melt 6 tbsp honey with a pinch of cinnamon and 2 tbsp thyme leaves and leave to infuse for 10 minutes. Reheat if the honey has solidified, and pour over the cheesecake.

RESTAURANTS JAMES PEMBROKE THE DALLOWAY TERRACE, BLOOMSBURY, LONDON 1 medium onion, finely chopped 3 fat garlic cloves, crushed 1 large potato, peeled and thickly sliced 500g tomato passata 1 tsp each thyme, oregano, cinnamon 2 red Romano peppers, chunked Salt and pepper Preheat the oven to 200°C/390°F/Gas 6. Spread the aubergine slices in a baking tray, baste with olive oil and salt and roast for 20-25 minutes till just soft. Meanwhile, sauté the onion in olive oil till golden. Add the garlic and fry for another minute. Add the sliced potato and enough hot water to just cover. Bubble up, cover and leave to simmer for 6 minutes. Add the passata, herbs and cinnamon. Bubble up and stir in the peppers and aubergine. Spread in a roomy baking dish, drizzle with more oil, season, cover with foil and bake for about an hour, removing the foil for the last 10 minutes. Finish with more oil and serve warm in the shade of an olive tree, bearing in mind that Icarus, for whom the island is named, tumbled into the sea after flying too close to the sun. Honey-and-thyme cheesecake This recipe was gathered from a refugee women’s support centre in Athens. This sort of honey cake was offered to the gods in thanks for safe delivery. Sweetness brings happiness. Serves 4-6 650g ricotta (or other fresh white cheese) 150ml runny honey 1 tsp ground cinnamon ½ lemon, zest and juice 3 large eggs, lightly beaten 1 tbsp cornflour Topping 6 tbsp honey, ground cinnamon, thyme sprigs Preheat the oven to 200°C/390°F/Gas 6. Butter and line a spring-form baking tin, diameter 20cm. Whisk the ricotta till smooth with the honey, lemon zest and juice. Whisk in the eggs and cornflour. Spoon into the tin

THE MUSEUM INN, SHAFTESBURY, DORSET One of the unsung joys of meeting friends in restaurants is that they are never late. Maybe it’s because we equate the booking time – eg 8pm – with ‘Curtain up’ at the theatre. Or because we’re fed up with being told, after giving our order, ‘And, just to remind you, we will be wanting your table back in two hours.’ I suspect many of us simply don’t want to miss one minute of being fed, sluiced and cherished. Those adept in the art of gamesmanship often subscribe to the motto ‘First come, first served’. They’re also the first able to steal the advantage on that first bottle of wine or champagne which goes on the shared bill. Oh, yes! There are no such compensations when you’re hosting friends for lunch or dinner at your dreary old home. You just fret about the veggies until the last arrogant oaf strides in. He then tells you how lucky you are he came at all, while delivering a humdrum excuse with the sort of adrenalin reserved for a man who has just tackled three suicide bombers en route. Two friends recently arrived one hour late for lunch with the two of us, and one was a former army officer. What happened to ‘Synchronise watches?’ He certainly wouldn’t have captured Pegasus Bridge in ’44. Barristers, on the other hand, are very punctual – often early (for reasons, see above). Dear Adam is too polite to have ordered a bottle of Montrachet while he was waiting in the sunny bower that is the Dalloway Terrace, but we quickly devoured our first bottle of rosé of the season. Part of the Bloomsbury Hotel, it’s not cheap. Starters – including an excellent ceviche – are £15 and the cheapest bottle is £32, but it is situated in what must be the West End’s quietest ward. Its only floral rival is the ‘over-canopied’ Clos Maggiore, in Covent Garden. Titania might have created the walls of blooms


and blossoms, and the waiters are the most attentive fairies. In 1899, the neat village of Farnham, north Dorset, had 12,000 visitors keen to see the remainder of General PittRivers’s archaeological finds, which he had donated to the eponymous museum in Oxford in 1884. Until 1970, his Farnham museum was housed in the Orphan Gyspy School, half a mile from the village centre, after it had fallen empty when the Gypsies stayed away. With the benefit of post-colonial hindsight, we now know this was due to fears of cultural elimination by the evil general. He clearly tried to redeem himself by building the Museum Hotel to accommodate all the curious visitors. When it was relaunched as a gastropub in the late 1990s, the village was again flooded, not least in anticipation of a sighting not of Claudian coins but of local lass Mrs Guy Ritchie, AKA Madonna. Yes, that one, the very winner of the 1998 Blandford Shove Ha’penny tournament. This brush with fame actually did the pub no good; when Madge left, her people followed. Under new management, the pub offers a wonderful, double-baked cheese soufflé and confit duck-leg salad. Not traditional Gypsy fare, but perfect if washed down with a pint of local Sixpenny Best. The Museum Inn, Farnham, Nr Blandford Forum, Dorset DT11 8DE; www. museuminn.co.uk; tel: 01725 516261 Dalloway Terrace, 16-22 Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3NN; www. dallowayterrace.com; tel: 020 7347 1221; two courses for under £25

DRINK BILL KNOTT THE CASE FOR CHARDONNAY I never joined the ABC club. Dating from the mid-1990s, the name stood for Anything But Chardonnay and was a reaction against the ostentatiously yellow, invariably Australian chardonnay that filled many a supermarket trolley at the time. Oversweet, over-oaked and over here. While I never liked that style of chardonnay, especially when the vanilla aroma came not from new casks but from giant teabags of oak chips dumped in stainless-steel tanks, it seemed unfair to blame the grape variety. To paraphrase that great philosopher Jessica Rabbit, it wasn’t bad, it was just made that way. Similarly, you might not care for egregiously fruity Californian merlot, but Château Pétrus isn’t a bad drop.

Chardonnay is, after all, responsible for Chablis, Montrachet, Meursault, Pouilly-Fuissé and blanc de blancs champagne, as well as the humbler whites from Mâcon. The problem is that, for the top appellations, prices are as exalted as their reputations and, frankly, I can’t afford them. Basic Mâcons and Mâcon-Villages are fine but a tad samey, perhaps because many of them come from Cave de Lugny, the huge (and hugely successful) Burgundian co-operative. But good chardonnay is not exclusive to Burgundy. Many Australian wineries now make unoaked or lightly-oaked chardonnays – one winemaker told me, in typically Aussie fashion, that making an unoaked chardonnay was ‘like running along the beach with no clothes on: there’s nowhere to hide, mate’. The results, while invariably fruitier and less ‘nervy’ than burgundy, can be impressive, especially from Margaret River, south of Perth. Try Vasse Felix’s ‘Filius’ 2019 chardonnay, or the zippy Xanadu Exmoor 2018 chardonnay. My local West London wine merchant, the estimable Mallek at Askew Wine, pointed me in another direction: to Limoux, south of Carcassonne, most famous for its fizz but also producing terrific still chardonnay. He described his recommendation – Sieur d’Arques Limoux ‘Toques et Clochers’ – as ‘baby Meursault’ and I had to agree. The 2016 vintage is £15 from ewwines.co.uk. And the Wine Society’s Domaine de Mouscaillo 2018, made from chardonnay grown on the windswept hills above Limoux, (£16) slipped down a treat with roast chicken. And then there is Jura, east of Burgundy, on the way to Switzerland. Like Limoux, it is best known for another style of wine – the oxidised, sherry-like vin jaune, made from the savagnin grape and jolly good with the local Comté cheese – but it also makes lovely, elegant chardonnay, largely thanks to its elevated terroir in the foothills of the Alps and its consequent cool climate. Having escaped London for a few days recently, I picked up a bottle of Domaine Rolet Arbois Chardonnay 2016 from the Majestic in Falmouth for £16.99 (£14.99 if you buy six); it was the perfect foil for a splendid lunch at which we feasted decadently on Cornish lobster. A little extravagant, perhaps – but had we been drinking Meursault or Montrachet, we couldn’t have afforded the lobster. The stellar chardonnays of Burgundy are, as Keats has it, things of beauty and joys for ever (as long as they don’t succumb to premature oxidation), but they are Anything But Cheap.

Wine This month’s Oldie wine offer, in conjunction with DBM Wines, is a 12-bottle case comprising four bottles each of three wines from the Mas de Daumas Gassac in the Languedoc: a 100-per-cent chardonnay sparkler made in the pétillant-naturel style; a pale, summery rosé made from grenache and carignan; and a spicy red in which syrah predominates. Or you can buy cases of each individual wine. Mas de Daumas Gassac ‘Folie’ Pét Nat NV, offer price £13.99, case price £167.88 Gently sparkling, with crisp acidity and clean, green apple fruit. Lemonade for grown-ups.

Moulin de Gassac Guilhem Rosé 2020, offer price £9.99, case price £119.88 Pale and interesting, bone-dry rosé with classic aromas of red fruits and a hint of garrigue herbs on the finish.

Moulin de Gassac Guilhem Rouge 2019, offer price £9.99, case price £119.88 Robust, savoury red made from mostly ungrafted, low-yielding syrah, grenache and carignan vines. Great value.

Mixed case price £135.88 – a saving of £22.99 (including free delivery) HOW TO ORDER

Call 0117 370 9930

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The Oldie June 2021 77


SPORT JIM WHITE WIMBLEDON RETURNS Incredibly, this year’s Wimbledon tennis championship marks 40 years since John McEnroe blew up in his first-round tie against Tom Gullikson and issued the words that came to define him. I was a witness to this. My girlfriend had secured us ground tickets and, in those days, one could queue up to stand at the side of No 1 Court. We watched as, with that gorgeous arc of a serve, McEnroe fired in what looked like a perfect ace. A puff of chalk dust flew up, suggesting the ball had hit the line. Gullikson appeared to think it had, and looked a tad bemused when the line judge called it out. When the umpire, Edward James, ruled the call was good, McEnroe, his headband struggling to corral his billowing tuft of hair, stopped and issued a dismissive ‘Excuse me?’ James explained the ball was out. ‘You can’t be serious,’ the 21-year-old yelled, before exploding in foot-stamping fury. ‘You cannot be serious.’ Even as he complained, the crowd were beginning a slow handclap. Being rebellious students, my girlfriend and I, however, were on his side. Sure, McEnroe’s reputation as a hothead meant he’d already been dubbed ‘Superbrat’ by the tennis press; the previous year, he’d been booed by the Centre Court crowd for losing his temper in the semifinal against Jimmy Connors. But though we rather enjoyed the frisson he brought, most were not amused. Even as we cheered, they grumbled. Not that the gathering disdain quietened him. Apparently close to tears of frustration, he carried on his tirade. ‘Everyone knows it’s in. This whole stadium knows it and you call it out? Explain that to me, will you? You guys are the absolute pits of the world.’ Despite the umpire’s docking him a point, he went on to win the match. The reaction that followed was extraordinary. The All England Club authorities fined him £1,500, the maximum allowable, and threatened disqualification. A Times leader thundered about declining standards. The thing is: he may have been rude, but he was right. Having better eyesight than the average umpire, he knew the ball was in, just as television replays indicated. Driven by a sense of injustice, he went on to win the title, beating Björn Borg in the final. Over the years, the phrase followed him round. In 2002 he used it as the title of his autobiography. Gradually our attitude to it changed. Instead of tutting when we heard it, we smiled. As he mellowed into the grand old sage of the circuit, twinkling 78 The Oldie June 2021

Serious: John McEnroe, No 1 Court, Wimbledon, Monday 22nd June 1981

with charm as a BBC television pundit, he seemed contractually obliged to repeat it. Some 30 years after he had first uttered it, I saw him play in the Tennis Masters tournament at the Royal Albert Hall. Just as he was about to serve, the sound of a champagne cork, popped in a hospitality box, echoed round the building. He stopped, looked in the direction of the interruption and, with perfect comic timing, yelled, ‘You cannot be serious.’ It brought the house down. For many in the audience, they were the words they had come to hear. The Wimbledon Championships last from 28th June to 11th July

MOTORING ALAN JUDD EXPENSIVE MILES ON THE CLOCK A reader from Tonbridge wrote seeking advice on car insurance. Almost 85, he has been driving for 65 years without ever having an accident. He is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists and covers a low annual mileage in his 2013 Kia Rio 2. He wrote because his insurance company seemed to increase his premiums with unjustified enthusiasm every year. Sensibly, he tried shopping around but found only minor savings. Also, the process was exasperating: ‘When you get past all the phone recordings, you end up talking to people who are from another world, speaking very quickly from a script, when all you want is a price.’ It is hard not to sympathise. I suggested a few companies reputedly receptive to older drivers, including one called Sterling which was new to me. His further researches yielded a quote of £800 from the AA, £882.56 from Churchill, £1,500 from Age Concern (who surely should know better), no answer from Direct Line and a creditable £699 from Sterling, inclusive of a number of extras. Full marks to Sterling.

His plight is a common one but it needn’t – and shouldn’t – be. True, figures show that the old are more likely to have accidents than the middle-aged, albeit less likely than the young (the under-25s are the highest risk). But, beneath the figures, there are unacknowledged variables and sometimes a degree of reporting bias. On the one hand, the elderly are more likely to suffer physical consequences from accidents, which means they are more likely to be reported and thus become statistics. On the other, figures rarely take into account numbers in each age category and mileage driven. The elderly tend to drive fewer miles, less often at night and mostly in familiar territory, which could mean they’re under-represented in accident statistics. Except that younger high-milers, whose accident rate is lower than low-milers’, drive more on motorways, which are statistically safer than other roads. So perhaps the elderly are not so underrepresented after all. The two groups also tend to have different kinds of accident: the young more often due to speed and loss of control, the old more often at junctions due to their misjudging the speed of oncoming vehicles – like the late Prince Philip in his car accident in 2019. Thus, you’re more likely to be hit by a younger driver and more likely to hit an old one. However, old age alone does not appear to be a reliable predictor of accidents. Yet so many insurance companies – hiding no doubt behind algorithms – act as if it is. This is despite the existence of technology, such as the black boxes used by some young drivers, to calculate more precisely the accident risk of individuals rather than subject them to dubious statistical generalisations. The RAC offers a 5p-per-mile policy to those who drive less than 6,000 miles a year, plus a parked premium charge, which for me would be £224.04 per year. Do the maths – 5,999 miles adds up to a further £299.95. But there are catches: you mustn’t be over 75, your vehicle must be under 20 (that would eliminate three-quarters of this household’s fleet) and you must have a smartphone and app. Come on, RAC – if there has to be an age charge, couldn’t you make it 6p for the over-75s who drive old crocks (which they mostly don’t)? The point is that our Tonbridge reader could and should be charged according to the accident risk he actually poses, taking into account his mileage, driving habits etc, rather than one based on the generality of octogenarians. It ain’t rocket science.


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The Oldie June 2021 79


Matthew Webster: Digital Life

The Home Office spy in your home Do you want our government to read your WhatsApp messages? Neither do I. And, thanks to end-toend encryption (E2EE), they can’t – at the moment. Using E2EE, only the writer and the recipient can read the message; nobody else, not even the message service itself. WhatsApp uses E2EE and Facebook intends to, soon. These two cover half the active message-senders worldwide. However, officialdom doesn’t seem to like us keeping secrets and the Home Office has just started yet another attempt to ban E2EE. It is at least their third effort. In 2018, they linked it to terrorism, claiming that WhatsApp provides a ‘secret place for terrorists to communicate’. They wanted

Webwatch For my latest tips and free newsletter, go to www.askwebster.co.uk

What Google knows… https://adssettings.google.com When you are logged into Google, this page will show you what they know about you, to target their ads. National Archive https://media.nationalarchives.gov.uk Lots of videos and talks from experts at the National Archive. Well worth a browse. I will happily try to solve your basic computer and internet problems. Go to www.askwebster.co.uk or email me at webster@theoldie.co.uk

a skeleton key; this received a very cool reception from an industry that rates security pretty highly. In 2019, the GCHQ cyber spooks claimed their spying was being hampered by E2EE. They suggested that all encrypted messages should have a ‘ghost user’; in other words, a copy of every message you send would be covertly sent to whatever state organisation they nominated. This too was firmly rejected by the industry, after they had stopped laughing. An impressive group of 47 civil-rights groups, trade associations, businesses and security experts coordinated a powerful argument against the GCHQ plan. As part of a detailed response, they pointed out the huge potential for misuse, not least around fraud and online scams. A back door works for the bad people as well as the good ones. That cooled things down for a bit. Now the Home Office is trying again, by bringing the safety of children into the argument – always an emotive subject. The NSPCC, clearly in cahoots with the Home Office, recently commissioned a report that, in a nutshell, suggests that children are put at risk if adults are allowed secrecy. The previous objections to E2EE are dismissed. The report even bizarrely suggests that allowing government access to your encrypted messages is somehow analogous to speed limits on motorways; it’s for our own good. Unfortunately, the report is, in my view, far from even-handed. It isn’t surprising, given that, of the 16 ‘experts in the field’ interviewed, only one was a

civil-rights group; seven were government and law-enforcement organisations (including the Home Office itself) and another six clearly had axes to grind in this area, having opposed E2EE before. To be fair, they did also speak to Google and TikTok, but Google was the only one of the 47 signatories of the 2019 counterblast that was consulted this time. I’m not impressed. It would be easy to gather a spectrum of opinion, but it seems to me that the intention was to produce a report that supported a particular campaign. It’s bad enough that a major charity puts its name to a partisan document like this, but what’s worse is that the Home Office can now hide behind the NSPCC’s good name and wave the report around, citing ‘experts’ and ‘child protection’, all as an excuse to peer at our messages. The serious problem here is that the NSPCC is right. E2EE probably does make tracking child-abusers harder, but we didn’t need this report to convince us of that. My real fear is that, even if encryption makes it more difficult to keep us safe, a lack of encryption will make it even harder for everyone, including children, to stay safe. On top of that, it’s not the only solution. Encrypted WhatsApp already uses successful data analysis to close over 300,000 accounts each month that are suspected of child-related abuse. As the Home Office has shown before, they want to read our messages. This time, the excuse is a desire to save children. If they get their way, it won’t stop there. Mark my words.

Margaret Dibben: Money Matters

Free financial advice MoneyHelper – a service offering free help to people who want to sort out their money problems and take control of their finances – will be rolled out in June. While the brand name is new, the service is not. For years, there have been three sources of free financial guidance and 80 The Oldie June 2021

information: the Money Advice Service, the Pensions Advisory Service and Pension Wise. All three give help with pension problems and you can see the overlap. At the start of 2019, the three were brought together as the Money and Pensions Service, which has the natty

acronym MaPS, but they continued to operate separately. MoneyHelper will be the public face of MaPS which is sponsored, though not funded, by the government. It is paid for by a levy on the financial services and pensions industries. MaPS’s aim is to provide a one-stop


shop to help people manage their finances throughout their lives – from pocket money to pensions – and covers all personal money questions: how to budget, reduce spending, claim entitlements, build up savings and find help to cope with debt. It says the service it offers can’t be found anywhere else. Among the separate organisations, the Money Advice Service gives information on pension basics and debt advice, plus guidance and information about any aspect of your finances – including house-buying, mortgages, credit and cutting costs. The Pensions Advisory Service (TPAS) employs paid pension specialists, who give guidance and information about retirement planning and pensions – state, personal and work pensions. With Pension Wise, people aged 50 and over can book up to an hour’s consultation with a specialist for impartial guidance on defined contribution (also called money purchase) pensions – the type where your pension payment depends on how much your contributions become worth. In normal times, it could also arrange face-to-face meetings; for the time being, these have been suspended.

‘Melinda Gates gets half of everything’

Even though all three brands are coming together in MaPS, Pension Wise will retain its existing name while the other two become MoneyHelper. One reason for changing the names of the Money Advice Service and TPAS is

Within this industry, ‘advice’ can be given only by people who are regulated

that they include the words ‘advice’ and ‘advisory’ in their titles. To the general public, ‘advice’ denotes what you seek when you need help with making a decision, whoever provides it. Within the financial services industry, ‘advice’ can be given only by people who are regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Anyone who is not regulated can claim to give only ‘guidance’ and cannot recommend specific financial products to buy. MoneyHelper gives guidance, as do its three legacy brands. Although MoneyHelper is set up as a one-stop shop, it does not yet have a single telephone number; you can contact them on the services’ existing phone numbers and websites: www.moneyadviceservice.org.uk: tel 0800 138 7777 www.pensionsadvisoryservice.org. uk: tel 0800 011 3797 www.pensionwise.gov.uk: tel 0800 138 3944 The MoneyHelper service should not be confused with any other outfit using the words ‘money’, ‘help’ and ‘helper’ together. None of these is a governmentbacked free, unbiased service.

‘The gentleman who thinks he’s turning into a gecko is waiting for you in the consulting room’ The Oldie June 2021 81


Getting Dressed

Most elegant shade of Grey

MIKE CHAMPION/ALAMY

The prima ballerina danced through the war and is still in fine fettle brigid keenan Dame Beryl Grey celebrates her 94th birthday on 11th June. Who could possibly guess? She was just as stylish nearly 70 years ago when my best friend and I queued for her autograph at the Royal Opera House. Grey is the perfect example of disciplined elegance, traditional in the ballet world. She never became a household name like Margot Fonteyn, but she is as significant in her own quiet way. First, she starred as a prima ballerina of the Royal Ballet, and then she was a freelance guest dancer around the world. She was the first British dancer to appear with the Bolshoi Ballet in Russia. Finally, she became artistic director of the English National Ballet. She knew Fonteyn and Nureyev well, but never danced with the Russian star because, at five foot seven, she was considered too tall. Nureyev was five foot eight. She did invite him to perform with the English National Ballet – and found him a brilliant but difficult man. In an argument, she said to him, ‘There are other great dancers too, you know, Rudi?’ Whereupon he threatened her with a knife and she had to be pulled away for her own safety. Dame Beryl admits luck has played a huge part in her life. At the age of four, she went to dancing classes only because her parents thought it would be fun for her to join her cousins at them. A particularly brilliant teacher spotted her talent and roped her in for more lessons and exams. At the age of ten, she was accepted as a scholarship pupil by the terrifying doyenne of dance Dame In high heels at 94. Her clothes are from Sussex shops. With her dog, Simba 82 The Oldie June 2021

Ninette de Valois, who ran the Sadler’s Wells Ballet company. Dame Ninette once danced with the Ballets Russes. In 1941, at 14, she joined the company itself – luck again, because a dancer had appendicitis and Grey was taken on to fill the gap. The war was at its height, but the Company toured the UK, dodging dive-bombers, performing in theatres that had been hit. Then came her biggest break. Fonteyn became unwell during a performance and Grey, still only 14, was ordered by Dame Ninette to replace her in the role of Odette in Swan Lake in Act 2. The following year, she danced the whole ballet – the youngest person ever to do so. Grey laughs at herself for another memory from this time. Fonteyn, bored with a smart, red coat she owned, gave it to Nadia Nerina, one of the other young dancers. Grey had secretly longed for it to be given to her. In 1949, the company performed in the US for the first time. The dancers showcased British fashion by wearing clothes from top UK designers. Grey’s clothes were by Victor Stiebel and Norman Hartnell. She loved them and occasionally wears her Stiebel coat to this day. The American tour was life-changing for Grey. During the Chicago stop, she met her future husband, Swedish osteopath Sven Svensson. In fact, she had met him before. Like all the dancers she knew, she had regular appointments with an osteopath – and he had been a locum at her local practice. She’d forgotten, but he remembered and courted her when she came to the Windy City. They married not long after and had a son, Ingvar.

In her favourite role in Swan Lake, 1955

Ingvar is definitely not a balletomane. The first and only time he came to see her dance, he caused much hilarity by shouting, ‘That’s my mummy!’ when she came on stage. Her husband continued to tend her body for half a century (he died in 2008), which explains why she is in such good shape. She’s even able to wear high heels. Years of dance, diet and discipline account for her perfect posture and figure. She lives at home near her son in Sussex and has, over the years, shopped locally for her elegant clothes. A nearby hairdresser comes to colour and cut her hair. She keeps in trim by limbering up for ten minutes a day and walking Simba, her Sheltie. After years of greasepaint, she now wears little makeup, but always applies lipstick – ‘very important’. She is a dutiful patron of various dance organisations, including the Gielgud Academy. Its principal told me that, in ten years, Grey has never missed their annual show. Dame Beryl is the author of For the Love of Dance (Oberon Books)




The Red Kite by john mcewen illustrated by carry akroyd In James Fisher’s Bird Recognition (1951), the once ubiquitous red kite (Milvus milvus) had been reduced to six pairs in central Wales. In 2003, on the M40, you’d see kites for the next hour after passing the Chilterns gap. In March this year, Helen Bellany wrote from Essex that she thought her wood would soon be ‘designated UK red-kite headquarters. I counted seven swooping and hovering over my garden the other day, some with twigs and straw in their beaks. We think that they are nesting in the wood… They are formidable birds when they turn tricks in the sun and the glorious red patterns of their wings are caught in the streams of light.’ The exponential increase of red-kite numbers is modern Britain’s ultimate conservation success story. A Kite Preservation Fund was established between the wars and introduction of foreign birds attempted – but the decisive moment was 1st August 1989. Young red kites from Sweden were released on the Wormsley estate of The Oldie’s saviour, philanthropist Sir Paul Getty. He loved the bird and underwrote the reintroduction in a collaborative effort with the RSPB and English Nature. There was a matching release on the Black Isle, Ross and Cromarty. At that date, there were 52 known nests in Wales. The reintroduction was nevertheless contentious. Ian Carter, author of The Red Kite (Arlequin Press), who worked on the reintroduction programme, was disheartened to hear birdwatchers dismiss the released birds, with their glaring wing tags, as ‘plastic’. Today the kite has been introduced to Ireland, north and south, while southern England alone supports 15 per cent of the 30,000-strong world population. Its scavenging adaptability, which once made it a London bird, suggests that a future British population of 50,000 breeding pairs is no pipe dream.

Historically, its unpopularity in Britain with chicken-owners was the principal reason for its extermination. Shakespeare encapsulates it in Macbeth, Act IV, scene 3, when Macduff despairs about the murder of his family: All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam At one fell swoop? Today’s most distinguished denouncer of the bird, guaranteeing the fury of kite cultists, is our founding editor, Richard Ingrams, who has described it as ‘menacing’ and ‘savage’, and is ‘pleased to

see a picture of a dead one’. He regards it as the scourge of songbirds and even kestrels. Supporters blame grouse-moor gamekeepers for the modest return on the Black Isle project. The sporting fraternity deny this. Falcons will take flying grouse; so grouse freeze at their approach. The ill-equipped, therefore scavenging, kite only threatens chicks – but they do disturb mature grouse into flight. When predators were legally controlled, poisoned meat and guts did for chick-tempted scavengers. Now, denying them tree roosts is the best protection: no trees, no kites. The Oldie June 2021 85


Travel Exmoor ecstasy In lockdown, Londoner Ivo Dawnay moved to Somerset’s coombes and moors. Now he never wants to leave this Garden of Eden

T

here is an absolutely fail-safe way of finding the remotest and most beautiful places to escape to in England – they are anywhere that is at least 50 minutes from a motorway. Now take a look at the map: there are precious few of them. Most of the Lake District, for example, doesn’t qualify. Almost nothing in the south of England and nothing at all in the Midlands or the industrial North. In fact, leaving Scotland and Wales out of it, you are pretty much left with a little patch of north-east Yorkshire and Northumberland, a smidgeon of the East Anglian coast, the bit of Dorset furthest away from Bournemouth and Exeter and the parts of Cornwall that lie west of Launceston – which is pretty much all of it. Not even Dartmoor qualifies – 45 minutes from the southernmost point of the M5. Which is why I live in Exmoor, and boast about it. I’ve become an Exmoor bore. ‘We are the first bit of real countryside outside London,’ I smugly tell my arriving visitors, exhausted in turn by the A303 Stonehenge traffic jam, hours of queasily winding lanes and finally shaken (not stirred) by the foot-deep potholes 86 The Oldie June 2021

that lead to our broken-down farmhouse – a mile and three-quarters from a tarmac road. Our house – a duplicate of Uncle Monty’s tumbledown cottage in Withnail and I – used to be an occasional retreat from the metropolis. Now, over a year into the COVID pandemic, it has become home and a catalyst for a personal revolution; a cerebral and visceral rediscovery of the lost Gardens of Eden of my childhood – in my case, Hampshire before the advent of the mini-roundabout. So if this is a love letter to Exmoor, it is also a travel piece about time. Because

Exmoor’s capital: Dulverton, home to the south-west’s best bookshop

that is the one thing the modern traveller never seems to have. I always loved our broken-down farmhouse, but it used to be a fleeting fling – a tumble between the rural sheets before a return to the sophisticated long-term pleasures of the big city. COVID changed all that. After a whistle-stop six-week spin around the US to cover the 2020 presidential primaries, I landed in west Somerset shortly before the first lockdown in March last year, just in time to witness the best spring in my 68 years. I have been here (with a very few exceptions) ever since. Now I am enjoying the sequel. If you have spent the last 12 months locked down with toddlers in a high-rise flat with an abusive partner, my apologies. But for us lucky few country-dwellers, especially new ones, the lockdown experience has been revelatory. This afternoon, for example, I was telling my nephews about my joy last year at watching the astonishing aerial acrobatics of the house martins as they swoop and dive to pick up mud for their nests. As I spoke, by pure coincidence the first house martins of 2021 made their appearance after an 8,500-mile trip from


ARTOKOLORO/ DAVID NOTON/ALAMY

‘Bosomy-soft’ open land: the road to Stoke Pero, Dunkery Beacon

South Africa in the cerulean May Day sky. My heart leapt. Yet, a year ago, I couldn’t have identified a house martin or told it apart from a swallow. But, given there was nothing else to do, I have put myself on a crash course on ornithology, flora and fauna – assisted by the Readers’ Digest Book of the British Countryside and The Observer’s Book of Birds. Today, there is little that comes to the bird-food table (dubbed Bicester Village for its naffness by my over-sophisticated wife) outside the dining-room window that I cannot identify. I am learning too about plants, slowly. I’ve measured the pH (acidity) of my soil and plan to begin a course on identifying birdsong, by means of BBC Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day. If those are universally available pleasures, Exmoor offers its own unique twist on them. To start with, down here we largely eschew fences or hedges. The moor itself is open land, where you can walk or ride for miles uninterrupted. In the coombes, the valleys beneath the high ground, cattle and sheep often wander the pastures largely untroubled by barriers. Lanes are rounded tunnels of hazel, and

obstacles tend to be landscape-scale hills and rivers. Unlike granite-dark, moody, Baskerville-hound-haunted Dartmoor – a crueller, starker beauty – Exmoor is bosomy soft, its modest villages sheltered from the south-westerly winds in the lee of gorse-covered high ground, often topped by stands of grey beeches, waving like sentinels, their buds turning them briefly mauve before the leaves burst forth. But what is there to see? I hear you demanding metropolitans ask. Well, if the mosses and lichens of Horner Wood are too specialist a pleasure, there is the clapper stone bridge of Tarr Steps, or, more man-made still, the moor’s tiny capital, Dulverton – population 1,400 – which boasts excellent pubs, antique shops and the best second-hand bookshop in the south-west, Rothwell & Dunworth. To the north, on the Bristol Channel,

Lockdown forced me not to be ambitious, achieve things or go to parties

is Dunster, with its medieval yarn market, elegant church and castle, which looms over the high street like a Dracula movie set. Then, along from Minehead – once a thriving medieval port, now famous for its almost-as-ancient Butlin’s – follow the wooded coast path to Porlock, taking in the model village of Selworthy and exhilarating views of south Wales. Further along still, past the spot where Norman Scott’s Great Dane, Rinka, was assassinated, comes a glorious stretch of moor, and then Lynmouth, famous for its lethal torrents and floods. But perhaps the greatest quality of Exmoor is that there is not much there. It is pretty unchanged and unchanging since King John declared it a royal forest and the first tarmac roads replaced the packhorse bridges and tracks, only very late in the 19th century. And that’s the way we like it. As the flashy SUVs and President Biden’s advance party pile up into stationary staycation traffic jams down the A30 to Cornwall – added to this June by the G7 summit in Carbis Bay – we in Exmoor will revel in our inconvenient location and somnolent unfashionability. For the charm of the place is partly its lack of pretension. Those of our neighbours who are not locals born and bred are, like me, contented dropouts from the London rat race. ‘Status in Exmoor,’ someone said, ‘is having the oldest car.’ For me, in my late sixties, the coming of COVID confinement could not have been better timed. It forced me – by law – not to do the things I have always wanted not to do: like work hard, be ambitious, achieve things or, worst of all, go to parties. In our kitchen is a printed sonnet – Le Bonheur de ce Monde (The Happiness of This World) – by a 16th-century French typographer, Christophe Plantin. It is a recipe for the good life, defining key components as having a nice house and garden, good wine – no staff, children or parents – and being happy with little and hoping for nothing. Once that has been achieved, one can await contentedly ‘chez soi bien doucement la mort’. So true for me. Surely, after all, it was Dr Pangloss, not Voltaire, who had it right. All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, so long as one turns off the news, pours oneself a glass of very good wine and simply cultivates one’s garden – preferably in Exmoor. The Oldie June 2021 87


Overlooked Britain

A philanthropist’s palace

lucinda lambton Heroic American steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie paid for 3,000 libraries and built glorious Skibo Castle in his native Scotland ‘A man who dies rich dies disgraced,’ thundered my hero Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). In an essay – his foundational work on philanthropy, The Gospel of Wealth – he wrote, ‘The problem of our age is the proper distribution of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship.’ Having made a vast fortune as an industrialist, particularly with steel, iron and the railways, he was responsible for the stupendous architectural, as well as philanthropic, achievements of building some 3,000 libraries worldwide. Not only that; he also gave more than 7,600 organs to churches, as well as creating and endowing myriad organisations dedicated to education, music and scientific research. From 1899-1903, he built manytowered Skibo Castle in Sutherland, originally a 13th-century castle, overlooking the Dornoch Firth. He loved and lived in it on and off until his death. Splendid, rather than beautiful, it is now a luxurious club which has barely changed since Carnegie’s day. The bagpipes are still played at breakfast. Here the illuminati gathered: Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling and John B Stetson – who in the 1860s invented the cowboy hat. Booker T Washington and President Woodrow Wilson were also guests. Then there was the deaf and blind Helen Keller, who came to lunch with Mrs Carnegie, praising Skibo as an ‘enchanting place’. She wrote, somewhat piously, ‘How often the dwellers in that castle, when they look out from their windows, must think of the Psalm “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hill.” ‘People who think they see often wonder what good there is in life for us who are blind. But you and I know we are happy when we are given a task we take pride in, or when our hands are plunged into a good book. These are the greatest, the purest, and most perfect pleasures which God has provided for his creatures.’ Skibo’s glorious hall rears up in the middle of the house with a staircase that 88 The Oldie June 2021

Skibo Castle, Sutherland; Andrew Carnegie

sweeps skyward towards an immense stained-glass window, designed in 1902 by Gerald Moira. Scenes of Carnegie’s life shine forth in brilliant hues: a ship sails off to America; the Statue of Liberty stands over all, while the Dunfermline cottage he was born in makes a proud appearance. A great Brindley & Foster organ flanked by marble pillars, with a multitude of golden pipes, makes a tremendous din throughout the house. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was Carnegie’s favourite. Another splendid survivor is the swimming pool, with a glass roof and stone arches enhancing the parkscape, which has been immaculately restored. Giving Skibo an up-to-date seal of approval was Madonna’s wedding to Guy Ritchie in 2000, when there was a dramatic fire in the roof – all now happily restored. Carnegie was born a pauper. His father was a hand-loom weaver. His mother sold potted meats at a ‘sweetie shop’ – in that three-room weaver’s cottage at Dunfermline. There were two

bedrooms: one for the Carnegies, the other for the family next door, with the living room to share between them. In 1848, the Carnegies emigrated to America, where Andrew, their eldest son, became a ‘bobbin boy’ for $1.20 a week. Later, when he was a telegrapher, his quick-wittedness, as well as his Scots accent, greatly appealed to his superintendent, James Reid. Reid’s first advice was that our hero invest in the inventor of the sleeping car, the most pleasingly named Theodore Tuttle Woodruff. By 1891, Carnegie had built the thumping great Carnegie Hall on Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue. As a bumper bonus, he arranged that Tchaikovsky should be the guest conductor on the opening night. The building was in the neo-Renaissance style, as was the great Peace Palace in The Hague, his splendid endowment to the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Great indeed were his philanthropic achievements. Having declared, when he was only 35, that ‘the amassing of wealth is the worst species of idolatry’, he set forth on his noble route. He determined that ‘The day is not far distant when the man who died leaving behind him millions of available wealth which were free for him to administer during life will pass away unwept, unhonoured and unsung.’ By 1901, the banker J P Morgan was able to buy Carnegie’s colossal steel empire for $303,450,000. Morgan shook him warmly by the hand, saying, ‘Mr Carnegie, I want to congratulate you on becoming the richest man in the world.’ Carnegie never looked back. He assiduously beavered away with charitable trusts, foundations and museums and of course his most brilliant libraries. How I have delighted in seeking them out, so wildly diverse and in such wildly diverse places. There’s the vast, neoclassical pile in Washington, now the Historical Society of Washington. Then there was a palace-like ‘Italian Renaissance’ library in Springfield, Massachusetts.


AMY MURRELL/CHRIS TUBBS

The great staircase sweeps up beneath Gerald Moira’s 1902 stained-glass window

What about the Carnegie Library in Castries, capital of the Caribbean island of St Lucia? In the main square, the library shelters clay-pipe-smoking ladies from the sun. Today, it sports smashed windowpanes and has a lack of lavatory seats. But, by its very existence, it has promoted the studies of two Nobel Prize-winners, economist Sir William Arthur Lewis and the poet and playwright Derek Walcott. By way of contrast, in far-off Lancashire, I shall never forget the welcoming lights of Rawtenstall’s domed Carnegie Library one dark evening. It was open when everything else was closed. Its librarian was working away, as proud as Punch to show off a bust with an etched citation celebrating Andrew Carnegie.

‘The diminutive titan’ as he was often called – he stood only five foot two inches high – came in person to the opening ceremony of this modest establishment in 1907. He can be seen in a photograph – top hat gleaming – peeping out from the crowd. Two years earlier, with the laying of the foundation stone, a councillor had lauded the desire ‘to secure for our children, and their children to the third and fourth generation, the blessing of a free lending library and reading room, which they will appreciate and be grateful to its founders for in years to come’. Some hope: in the early 2000s, the Kensal Rise Library in London – opened by Mark Twain, no less, in 1900 – was threatened with closure. After long and bitter battles, now, at long last, it is safe. HURRAH! I’m afraid that I must deafeningly

blow my own trumpet, with a story that makes me prouder than anything else I have done in all my life. Having followed the trail of my hero Carnegie through Scotland and America, I discovered he’d been buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, at Tarrytown, upstate New York. What could and should be done adequately to honour the memory of such a man? Determined to so do, I had chipped a little piece of stone from the wall of the tiny cottage in which he had been born in Dunfermline. Later I had gathered a bunch of heather from his vast estate at Skibo in the Highlands. Having clutched them close for many weeks – it was a precious load – I reverently buried them beside Carnegie’s remains in America, beneath the elaborate Celtic cross that marks his grave. The Oldie June 2021 89



Taking a Walk

A ringside seat for Jersey’s battle royal

GARY WING

patrick barkham

I imagined a walk along the north coast of Jersey would deliver the ghosts and ruins of distant wars with France. I did not expect to encounter real, 21st-century Royal Navy ships dispatched against restive French sailors. Current affairs have resembled an overblown satirical novel for a while now. The latest chapter, in which navy patrols were dispatched to ensure French fishermen did not block Channel Island ports, was one of the more improbable recent plot twists. This turbulence did not quite reach the little footpath that wiggles around the north-eastern edge of Jersey, but the island was abuzz with the dispute. Locals took their children to various rocky promontories to scan the horizon for the Navy boats. France looms large from most points on Jersey, not least Rozel Bay, where I began this walk. The skies were mostly blue. The dazzling water was streaked with turquoise. Past the turtle-like rocks of the Écréhous, the beaches of Normandy shone gold. The grand scale of mainland France –with its big farm buildings and towering wind turbines – looked closer than 14 miles.

Here on Jersey, everything was diminutive and tightly packed: houses, fields, hedges, May blossom, bluebells and white campion. The island is Normandy with a twist of Cornwall – or Cornwall with a twist of Normandy – but, more than that, it is countryside and coast in concentrate. No wonder many islanders are reluctant to drive ten miles across their homeland for an evening out; such an expedition has the intensity of a 50-mile journey. This walk from the Hungry Man to Mad Mary’s is marked on maps and signs as being two miles each way, but it feels more like six. In a good way. I took the twisty lane north out of Rozel Bay, past an old-style bungalow with an immaculate, floral rockery dotted with signs – ‘Wife and dog missing. Reward for dog’. The coast path began at White Rock, a distinctive splodge of pale rock on Jersey’s mostly mauve-hued geology – as if spilt on by a careless painter. This superlative coastal trail combines the best of the coast path in both south and north Cornwall: valleys of verdant oak woodland and vertiginous sections of

open heather moorland, tipping into black rocks and ocean froth. At first, the path scurried into little tunnels of green and gorse. Overhead, accidentally-sown apple trees were turned into limbo dancers by the prevailing wind. Above us, tatty-winged crows, buzzards and kestrels surfed the breeze with equal extravagance. Everything seemed to be flowering simultaneously: not only broom, sea pinks and Alexanders but oaks, elms and unusually beautiful sycamores, their green flowers sheathed in pink. We passed the ruins of L’Etacquerel Fort, built in 1835 to guard the eastern side of Bouley Bay. It once boasted four 32-pound cannons. Perhaps the Prime Minister will be kitting it out again. Bouley Bay was dominated by a huge hotel from Jersey’s holidaymaking heyday, which continued into the 1980s, when Alan Whicker sipped G&Ts here and the Bergerac boom was in full effect. Unfortunately, the hotel has long been derelict (there are plans to redevlop it) – a shame when the island is likely to enjoy a tourism boom this year as visitors (like my family and me) are attracted to its sunny vision of France without the COVID paperwork. Fortunately, Mad Mary’s was open for tea, cake, ice cream and excellent conversation with Mary about the state of the island, from Bergerac to today. It seemed that French fishermen were the least of islanders’ troubles when they have to endure the ignominies of their latest depiction on television, ITV’s The Real Housewives of Jersey. Walk inland from Rozel Harbour, taking the first right up the hill. After half a mile, follow the ‘Footpath’ sign, right to White Rock. The coast path is a clear trail to Bouley Bay. You can return along the path or the (smoother) small roads. This walk is allegedly four miles long, but feels much further. At least the Hungry Man and Mad Mary’s cafés will refresh you at each end! The Oldie June 2021 91



On the Road

Hockney’s Normandy conquest The artist loves tailored suits, tripe and France. By Louise Flind

Anything you can’t leave home without? I’m not planning on going anywhere. Is there something you really miss? If I go anywhere, it’s always to work, really, now – and if I’m working, I don’t miss anything much [he chuckles]. What are your earliest childhood holiday memories? We had only one holiday away – in Hull, with some relatives; otherwise we went on day trips to Morecambe or Blackpool. Do you travel light? Just an iPad.

INDEPENDENT/ALAMY

Where do you feel happiest – Yorkshire, LA or Normandy? Right now, in Normandy – we live here. There’s just three of us living in the house: me, JP [Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima – Hockney’s assistant for 20 years] and Jonathan Wilkinson [a technical adviser].

What’s your new house like? It looks like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ house, in the middle of the garden. Is spring your favourite season? Spring is when everything grows again and it’s a beautiful time here. The first spring I noticed was in 2002, when I was sitting for a painting by Lucian Freud and I walked through Holland Park every day. One day, I sat down on a seat because there were these black rabbits. I lit a cigarette and then some blackbirds came. And then three girls came running along and said, ‘Oh no, you shouldn’t be smoking.’ I thought, ‘Well, they’re obsessed with their own bodies. They hadn’t seen the rabbits or the blackbirds. They hadn’t seen anything and I thought, I’m healthier than they are, and smoked my cigarette…’ Do you still love smoking? I think tobacco is a great gift to the world.

Which has the best light? They’re all different. In Bridlington, there was the reflective light from the sea, which was rather good light. And the light in LA is very, very good – very clear. But the light in Normandy is good – you get a lot more cloudy days, but it didn’t matter to me. I draw the dull light.

How has your art changed with technology? I draw on the iPad now; I have since 2011.

Why did you move to Normandy? We drove to Normandy to see the Bayeux Tapestry and I said to JP it would be a great place to do The Arrival of Spring. I suggested we rent a house and we loved this place the moment we drove in – so we bought it. I started drawing the winter trees and ended in June. There are 116 of them at the Royal Academy. With autumn, the leaves started falling off; I caught all that and finally finished the year in January with some snow. I’ve now made 220 pictures into one long picture (290 feet long), which will be exhibited at the Orangerie in Paris, and it’s like the Bayeux Tapestry.

Do you still dye your hair? Why did you dye your hair blond? No, it’s mostly white. I was watching television with this boy in 1961 and an advert came on and it said, ‘Blondes have more fun.’

Have you always loved terrific clothes? I’ve just had seven new suits made in Caen. I don’t go out, but I dress up every day, put on a tie and sit and draw and paint.

How were you discovered? How did the Kasmin Gallery, founded by Sheridan Dufferin and John Kasmin, fit in? What ‘Tobacco is a great gift to the world’

was his wife, the painter Lindy Dufferin, who’s just died, like? Kasmin started buying pieces of mine when I was in my second year at the Royal College of Art. So by my last year I was quite a rich student – I could buy cigarettes in packets of 20, not 10. Sheridan was Kasmin’s partner and I had my first exhibition there in December 1963. Lindy was 79 – a bit younger than me. She complained about my smoking but, anyway, I’m almost 85… Do you love the French food? Yes, we have tripe. It’s delicious. Andouillettes are marvellous. Do you speak French? Not really, no, but I don’t really have to talk much. I can’t really hear that well, anyway. I can hear you now because it goes through Bluetooth into my hearing aid. I think if you’ve got a purpose in life, that’s what really keeps you going – I know that. You can smoke, drink, do what you want. Monet smoked. He loved smoking and chain-smoked. He died at 86. Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Van Gogh smoked. Do you go on holiday? I haven’t had a holiday for 50 years; if I go anywhere, I’m always drawing, painting. I’m just a worker, really. Biggest headache? I have to really travel with somebody now because I can’t hear the announcements in airports. I’m pretty deaf. What about sex? I don’t know about sex now [he laughs] – I’ve had enough, I suppose. The Arrival of Spring is at the Royal Academy until 26th September 2021 The Oldie June 2021 93



Genius crossword 401 el sereno Across 1 Soup recipe featured by artist (6) 5 Porter keeping a dray offering freedom of choice? (1,2,5) 9 Sleeper’s long wait for action (5-3) 10 Experienced discrimination with the end of apartheid (6) 11 Reads Mail perhaps, and supports ... (10) 12 ...computer technology in case of hardliners strikes (4) 13 Savoury salad dressing without French wine (8) 16 Easy target for a model (6) 17 View needing time for popular alternative (6) 19 Supply drug to referee full of cold (8) 21 Measure edge (4) 22 Opportunity, even with no time for feature under glass (10) 25 This oddly healthy drink? (6) 26 White lies circulating within gang (8) 27 Porcelain that may be cracked at breakfast? (8) 28 Coarse description of our world? (6)

Down 2 Sailor also called for port (5) 3 Cooker causing a measure of distress to vegans? (5) 4 Bail must be arranged in cabin for swimmer (7) 5 Feature of one line in church subject to deceit (7) 6 Confirms if attending internationals (7) 7 Tasteful number without a name (9) 8 This may require one to be patient (9) 14 Independent politician - conclusion must be imminent (9) 15 Rash idea circulating about origin of live terminals (9) 18 Couple of presents impossible to be found? (7) 19 Cross goldminer without ID getting drunk (7) 20 See if disco dancing involves energy (and Ecstasy) (7) 23 Fly high orbiting left of the sun (5) 24 Set off without a meal (5)

How to enter Please scan or otherwise copy this page and email it to comps@theoldie.co.uk. With regret, owing to the current coronavirus epidemic we are temporarily unable to accept postal entries. Normal procedure will be restored as soon as possible. Deadline: 30th June 2021. We do not sell or share your data with third parties. First prize is The Chambers Dictionary and £25. Two runners-up will receive £15. NB: Hodder & Stoughton and Bookpoint Ltd will be sent the addresses of the winners because they process the prizes.

Moron crossword 401 Across 1 Countermanded (8) 7 Backwoodsmen (derog. USA) (5) 8 Tricky situation (3,6) 9 Whiskey grain (3) 10 Cowshed (4) 11 Position troops (6) 13 Public address system (6) 14 As one unit; all together (2,4) 17 Sayings (6) 18 Injections (4) 20 Obscure (3) 22 Dismiss; throw away (4,5) 23 Pancake (5) 24 Simple percussion instrument (8)

Genius 399 solution Down 1 A herb (anag) (5) 2 Old-stager (7) 3 Public violence (4) 4 Tooth covering (6) 5 Frightening (5) 6 Ice acts (anag) (7) 7 Wailing (7) 12 Love affair (7) 13 Malign, misrepresent (7) 15 Ahead (7) 16 Hot spring (6) 17 Deep yellow (5) 19 Soft leather (5) 21 Sparkling wine (4)

Cat was the key to this puzzle, either as anagram or as definition (Burmese, cheetah etc) Winner: Roger Kenworthy, Thongsbridge, West Yorkshire Runners-up: Marilyn Farndell, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire; Malcolm Farmer, Drayton, Portsmouth, Hampshire

Moron 399 solution Across: 1 Goal, 4 De luxe, 7 Ash, 9 Ajar, 10 Opponent, 11 Dot, 12 Acne, 13 Impunity, 16 Flash in the pan, 19 Assorted, 23 Saki, 24 Ire, 25 Dominant, 26 Nail, 27 Tic, 28 Deploy, 29 Eddy. Down: 2 Object lesson, 3 Larders, 4 Dhoti, 5 Lap up, 6 Xenon, 8 One-track mind, 14 Mince, 15 Ugh, 17 Her, 18 Essence, 20 Opine, 21 Trail, 22 Ditty. The Oldie June 2021 95



Competition TESSA CASTRO ‘I always lead an ace against an opposing slam,’ said Player A. ‘Do you?’ countered Player B. ‘Isn’t that a bit simplistic?’ I am afraid A stands for amateur. Player B is correct – the decision is far more nuanced. Take this deal from an ARBC online duplicate on Bridge Base Online. Dealer West North-South Vulnerable

West ♠ A 10 8 7 5 2 ♥J86 ♦92 ♣6 3

North ♠ KQJ ♥A52 ♦A83 ♣Q 9 8 7

South ♠9 ♥ Q 10 4 ♦ K Q J 10 6 4 ♣A K 2

East ♠ 643 ♥K973 ♦75 ♣J 10 5 4

The bidding South West North East 2♠ (1) 2NT(2) 3♠ (3) 6♦(4) end (1) Weak Two, showing a six-card suit and five-ten points. West is rock-bottom minimum. (2) Strong balanced, 15-19, with spades stopped. (3) Raising pre-emptively to the (nine-card) level of the fit. (4) Reasonable practical leap. When West looked no further than the ace-of-spades lead, declarer had an easy ride. He won West’s heart switch with dummy’s ace and could draw trumps and cash 12 tricks via two spades, three clubs, six diamonds and the ace of hearts. ‘He can’t make on an opening heart lead,’ said Player B (who was fast becoming B for Bore). Player C entered the conversation: ‘I think he can.’ C (for crafty) proceeded to show how – can you spot the winning line? You win the heart lead with dummy’s ace and lead ♣9, intending to run it if East plays low. Say East covers with the ten. You win the king and cross to ♦A (you could equally well finesse dummy’s ♦8 if you’re allowed to look at all 52 cards). You then lead and pass ♣8 (East playing low this time). You cross to ♦K (drawing trumps) and cash ♣A. You cross to dummy’s ♦8 and cash ♣Q, discarding your singleton spade. You now lead a heart towards your hand, promoting your queen whether or not East rises with the king. Slam made. ANDREW ROBSON

IN COMPETITION No 267, you were invited to write a poem as a cat’s view of a famous (named) person. It proved a successful device. Jennifer Willis gave Mitsou’s view of Marilyn Monroe: ‘My mistress has big eyes of blue/But not so blue as mine./My mistress wears a coat of fur/But mine is much more fine.’ Gail White’s cat lived uncomfortably with Edgar Allan Poe, as did Peter Hollindale’s with Agatha Christie: ‘She fills my dish. I sniff it. Carefully.’ Basil Ransome-Davies’s cat’s eye had Raymond Chandler in focus. Andrew Bamji’s was one of several takes on Larry’s view of Carrie. G M Southgate inverted Gray’s Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes and made the poet the fatality. T S Eliot got off lightly, though Jim Birkett began, ‘In the room the humans come and go/ talking of Michelangelo.’ Fiona Clark chose John Dee’s cat. D A Prince wrote of David Hockney, painter of Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, and Gary Smith ventriloquised Mrs Slocombe’s Pussy. Commiserations to them and congratulations to those printed below, each of whom wins £25, with the bonus prize of that reliable cat-alogue of words, The Chambers Dictionary, going to Martin Elster’s report from Schrödinger’s cat. When Erwin took me home in the cardboard box The shelter handed him, he wondered whether I was asleep, awake, a cat, a fox, A rabbit, rat, or all of those together. Plenty of pinholes let me breathe enough And hear enough to discern his nervous breathing. The car was quaking, bouncing over rough And bumpy gravel. Just a kitten, teething, I nibbled on the cardboard. In a while, The hole grew large. I scrambled out and crept Beneath the seat. After the final mile, He opened the box. He laughed and then he wept, Did both at once – a sort of superposition – Till, in one world, I leapt upon his lap. But in another, as if without volition, I bolted from that strange, surreal chap. Martin Elster You are loaf of pillow billow, Cushioned dough and down-filled duvet,

Soft and milky, white and silky, Warm and fragrant, sweet and yeasty, Dark and lustrous as the sliding Sidle of your sidelong eyes. Touch my spine with floury fingers Where the oven’s blood-heat lingers, Let me yawn and arch against your Ample aproned airbed bosom Breathing, lifting, plumping, proving, Rising, doubling in size. Let me purr and push and paw you, O Nigella, I implore you. And in slumberous thrall adore you Treading your marshmallow thighs. Jane Bower He was a kindly man My Samuel, Large and comfortable And smelling of his dinner. I wouldn’t have wished Him any thinner. He bought me oysters And treated me well. Dear Dr Johnson. Will he be remembered? Only time can tell. I shall remember him, A purrfect man. Imogen Thomas Philip! I knew you loved me When you let me in your home, Although you rarely left me food When you went off to roam. Other cats you toyed with, Each one a docile kitten; I guessed you only stroked them To check that I was smitten. Me, your faithful feline, Outlasting all the rest, The one that brought you titbits, And loved you most, and best. Knowing I was a survivor, You read, with puzzled glee, They named the cat in Alien Jonesy, after me! Martin Brown COMPETITION No 269 The village laundry place was once a social hub; now the washing machine whirs alone. A poem, please, with the title Laundry. Maximum 16 lines. We still can’t accept entries by post; please send them by email (comps@theoldie.co.uk – don’t forget to include your own postal address), marked ‘Competition No 269’, by 3rd July. The Oldie June 2021 97



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Ask Virginia

virginia ironside Husband’s sex worries

Q

My husband is not as virile, shall we say, as he used to be. We haven’t managed to have sex for a year now. To put it bluntly, he can’t get it up. Now, I don’t mind a bit, because sex had become very painful recently, but he is devastated and refuses to talk about it. During my researches into the subject – Viagra etc – I came across The Penis Poem by the country singer Willie Nelson written when he suffered similarly. I thought it would cheer him up, but he simply wasn’t amused at all. In fact he was furious. What can I do to convince him it doesn’t matter? Barbara V, by email Well, I find the whole poem, which you can find on the internet, funny. But I’m a woman, and you must remember that, for most men, erectile dysfunction is no laughing matter. It undermines their very sense of themselves. Even for the MD of a huge corporation with thousands slaving under his reign, not getting an erection can feel like a disaster. Laughter makes him feel even smaller. Be kind. Get help for your own sexual problems and encourage him to try Viagra. Sex even once every couple of months might mean a huge amount to him.

A

My angry daughter

Q

When I was babysitting my granddaughter earlier in the year, I took her with me to visit a friend. We’ve been refusing to obey the lockdown rules; now we’ve been vaccinated, it doesn’t matter. But, when she heard of this, my daughter was furious and has refused to let my granddaughter come over, saying I’m completely irresponsible. She says I

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106 The Oldie June 2021

have to apologise first. But why should I? There’s no way my granddaughter could have caught anything as she’s far too young. And what my friend and I do is our own affair, surely? I just can’t bring myself to apologise. MW, Brighton Faced with a situation like this, my father would always say to me, ‘Do you want to get your own way, or do you want to be right?’ I agree with you and I think you are right, but this is beside the point. The point is that your daughter has been frightened by the whole COVID drama. She may also be terrified of your daredevil behaviour because she’s scared of losing you. It actually makes no difference who is right or not. If you want your granddaughter to visit, write a grovelling – and I mean grovelling – apology. If only for the sake of your granddaughter, who, I’m sure, is missing you dreadfully.

A

Q

I long for friends

I don’t have any friends. I’ve spent seven days a week alone for the last 20 years, and not visited a theatre or had a holiday, and visited shops only for essentials. The only person I speak to is the woman who cuts my hair every month. After my marriage broke up, I moved to an area where I knew no one, to be away from everyone. I realised there’s no such thing as a friend. If I had a button to make myself disappear, I’d press it. Don’t tell me to join a club. I don’t know how to be with other people and have no small talk. I know there are charities that would help if I phoned, but I don’t want to be befriended by someone because it’s their job or I’m a pet project. I’m a bit stuck. Anon, by email

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A

So why are you writing to me? I’m sorry to be so harsh, but the very fact that you’ve bothered to ‘reach out’, as they say, is evidence that at some level you do long for contact. When I was extremely depressed, as you are, and talked endlessly about wanting to die, the only thing that helped me was a friend saying, ‘Well, why don’t you bump yourself off, then?’ It was a wake-up call. It compelled me to think of the reasons I wanted to live. Three things occur to me. First, you are very depressed. Ask your doctor if you can try some medication or counselling, or preferably both. Secondly, remember that friendships rarely exist without some ulterior reasons. They’re rarely just ‘pure’. Someone almost always wants something from you. It could just be company, or your humour, or the fact that you live locally – or even that they love your cooking. Usually they can reciprocate, which makes it fair. Finally, if you can’t face people, get a dog. You have so much love to give – I can feel it – and maybe you could give it more easily to an animal than to a human. Good luck.

Q

Kiss me quick

Reading your page recently, I saw the letter about snogging in the Fifties. It reminded me of an old joke. Question: ‘What is a kiss?’ Answer: ‘An upper persuasion for a lower invasion.’ John Noble, by email Ah, thank you! I hadn’t heard that one before. They don’t make jokes like that any more!

A

Please email me your problems at problempage@theoldie.co.uk; I will answer every email – and let me know if you’d like your dilemma to be confidential.

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