Italy The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me by Sofka Zinovieff Jonathan Cape, London. 436pp £25.00 (jacket price)
Some people praise red roses;
But I beg leave to say
That I prefer rod noses-
I think they are so gay.
A Kempis says we must not cling
To things that pass away:
Red Noses last a lifetime-
Red Roses but a day.
Red Roses blow but thrice a year-
In June, July or May:
But owners of Red Noses
Can blow them every day.
Harold Acton remembered being at lunch in one of those stuffy, oak-panelled gentlemen’s London clubs with Lord Berners, (1883 – 1950) when his lordship interrupted the meal by jogging round the dining room, blowing bubbles as he went. Gerald Tyrwhitt Wilson, the Seventh Lord Berners, also had a clavichord fitted in the back of his Rolls Royce, so that he might practice while his chauffeur was driving him round the Berkshire country lanes, and he sprayed the pigeons in his gardens, all the colours of the rainbow. He wrote both words and music of the song quoted above.
Berners’s lifetime partner, twenty-eight years his junior, Robert Heber Percy, was universally known as the Mad Boy. By the time I knew Robert, he was no longer a Boy, though he retained boyish good looks. But he was unquestionably Mad. Delightfully Mad. Their paradise was Faringdon House, part of the Berners Estate, where they entertained on a lavish scale. Their guest book reads like a Who’s Who in the Arts. Gerald left the Estate to Robert in his will and Robert kept up the tradition, even expanding it.
Robert left the Estate to his granddaughter –at least, she was told she was his granddaughter, though she uncovered some information that might suggest otherwise for her thoroughly researched book. Sokfa Zinovieff is a gifted writer and what an entertaining tale she has to tell! In true Berners tradition, the four-hundred page book is bound and printed on paper, the quality of which is rarely seen any more. The photographs are collectors’ items, both in colour and black and white (many by Cecil Beaton, who was a frequent guest and so a leading player in the story). The book is heavy. Were you to drop it on your foot, you would never walk again. That, of course, would mean that the Berners humour would be extended to your own sitting room.
When the Berners centenary was coming up in 1983, the composer, Gavin Bryars, had whet the appetite of my friends who ran the Autumn Music Festival in Como (Autuno Musicale di Como) for a weekend’s celebration of Berners works. They asked me about the right way to organise this. Gavin already knew Robert and Faringdon. And so did Harold Acton. Sir Harold gave me a telephone number –adding that he hoped Robert would be sober enough when I called, and adding, if he wasn’t, to ask to speak to Lady Dorothy Ligum –always known as Coot, who aided and abetted to Mad Boy. She eventually married him! Lady Dorothy remains one of the most extraordinary people I ever met: discreet, slow to judge and swift to praise, a woman of few words but maximum integrity and positively oozing old world charm. She was round and matronly in appearance which somehow underlined her wise soul. Zinovieff tells us that she had two much more beautiful elder sisters. Coot’s beauty was interior.
Sheila at Chester Music provided me with scores of the songs and piano music. And Heywood Hills Bookshop were able to obtain for me out-of-print Berners’s novels and two short volumes of memoirs (as Harold had said they would). I would have to talk to Robert about loans of Gerald’s watercolours and sketches, as well as his own participation (Harold, who is famous as raconteur, had already agreed to participate.) The Mad Boy graciously invited me to lunch.
I knew about the spraying of the pigeons, but I hadn’t been prepared for their colours to be so vivid. I said so. Yes, said the Mad Boy, I had them sprayed for you this morning. We were all enjoying the superb Mosel and outstanding fish lunch which Rosa had prepared.
Sofka Zinovieff dedicates a whole chapter to Rosa Proll, appropriately headed, The Nazi. Rosa was the Austrian cook and housekeeper, who remained unerringly loyal to Robert and her Alsatian dog, and appeared to give the Nazi salute as she entered the room. Her food was legendary, so Faringdon’s high standards were beautifully maintained.
While on Hitler’s admirers, I should mention that Diana Mitford, married to Sir Oswald Mosley (head of the British Fascist Party) was also a frequent visitor here. Lady Mosley died only recently (she and her husband were in Holloway Prison during the War as the country’s enemies). But the Lady still had the Führer’s name on her lips in 2003 as she passed away. Gerald seems to have been apolitical. And above all, non judgemental. And besides, she and Nancy (the eldest) were regarded as the most beautiful of the Mitford sisters. And beauty got you a very high score at Faringdon. Robert was. But Gerald wasn’t. But his lordship more than made up for it with his dry wit.
The Berners centenary celebrations at the Como Festival were a success. Peter Dickinson spoke and also accompanied his sister in a recital of Berners songs. The exhibition of Gerald’s watercolours aroused much interest in Villa Olmo –a baronial palace on the edge of the lake where Visconti was born. Harold Acton entertained the gathering with reminiscences. When it was Robert’s turn to speak, he simply stood up and said, He was wonderful. I miss him every day. Then sat down. Lady Dorothy was the model chaperon: a reassuring, silent presence.
When William Walton died in 1983, his widow, Susana, determined to turn the maestro’s music room in Ischia into a museum, dedicated to his life and work, found among his papers, letters from Lord Berners. I remembered William telling me how generous Gerald Berners had been to him when he was a struggling unknown composer. He was introduced to Berners by the Sitwells. Susana said how appropriate it would be for the museum if the Mad Boy would let her have copies of William’s letters to which she was holding the replies. Or even the originals, if Robert had no further use for them. What did I think? I said I would find out. On the phone, Robert said, Why don’t you bring her here to lunch and I’ll see what I can find. I told Susana that that was not an invitation to be taken lightly (Her own hospitality was always exceptional.) So one spring day we took the train to Faringdon. I’d prepared Susana for what to expect.
The front door of Faringdon House has a bold notice: It is Requested that all Hats Be Removed Lady Walton was in her hats phase: her solution to any knotty problem was to go out and buy a new hat. But she complied with this request. I rang the bell, which made a clanging like the call for the fire brigade. The door was flung open and Rosa made her salute. Are you coming to lunch? She inquired. (I later realised that Robert had not informed her of this appointment. He regularly did this. But Rosa was unfazed. And one of the world’s finest gastronomic improvisers.) Just then Robert appeared through another door, clapping his hands to his face in his embarrassment of not having advised Rosa. Champagne cocktails were poured and the day went swiftly and joyfully with Susana Walton departing with William’s letters.
I think it was on this occasion that Robert showed us the swimming pool he had constructed, paved with the old English copper pennies which went out with the introduction of decimal currency in sterling. The Berners humour was still flourishing at Faringdon.
Sofka Zinovieff’s grandmother, Jennifer Fry (1916 – 2003) is such an extraordinary character, she ought to be given a book to herself. She was beautiful, even in old age, highly sexed, punished by bouts of ill health but blessed with a sense of humour to equal the Mad Boy’s. She was also a fag hag (there are quite a number of them in this tale): both her husbands as well as her father were gay. Her mother, Alathea, though ill-suited as mother or wife, developed an interesting late friendship with her daughter, who seems to have been remarkably forgiving for the negligence in her infant years. Jennifer’s real friend all through life was her nanny, Pixie (Miss Beatrix Smith) who would also become nanny to Jennifer’s own daughter, after she had accidentally left her in Harrods. Did Jennifer’s ten-minute marriage to Robert give her enough time to bare his daughter, Victoria? (the author’s mother). By the time Jennifer raised this question with her offspring she seemed to be showing signs of dementia, so the answer remains ambiguous. All Hollywood material. Carey Mulligan maybe?
It seems to me it is always a good idea to distinguish between humour and wit. That said, the music of Berners frequently contains both, very successfully aiding and abetting one another. It is just this which makes this music unique. Stravinsky thought so too, among others. Stravinsky borrowed the technique, if I may so call it, as did Poulenc, Walton and Constant Lambert (all visitors to Faringdon). You can hear it in Berners’s songs and also in the Ballet A Wedding Boquet, which premiered in 1937 at Sadler’s Wells, with Margot Fonteyn, Ninette de Valois and Robert Helpmann dancing. Constant Lambert conducted. He was having an illicit affair with Margot at the time, who after he got her pregnant, abandoned her on the morning he promised to marry her. This is remarkably like the story of the ballet, which was based on a novel of Gertrude Stein (another frequent Faringdon visitor).
A real sense of humour requires an awareness of one’s own ridiculousness. Anything else is better understood as a sense of fun. The Faringdon team scored high on this awareness. Nigel Nicholson tells us that Virginia Woolf used to say, It’s kind of fun being mad but Nicholson adds that in Virginia’s case, it wasn’t; she would spit at people near her, especially Leonard (her husband). The problem was that Virginia wasn’t in the comfort zone when she went cuckoo. Her sister, Vanessa was, and would have been entirely at home at a Faringdon gathering.
Sofka Zinovieff serves this wonderful cast of nut cases extremely well. I’m only sorry to read in her final chapter that she now lives in Athens with her Greek diplomat husband. It will be almost impossible to keep the Berners spirit alive at that distance. But who knows? Maybe a regular summer festival dedicated to Berners & Friends. The book perfectly captures the spirit of the place and is unquestionably a collector’s item, extravagantly produced and a bargain at the jacket price of £25.