Monday 3 February 2014

Life as a party which I gatecrashed


George Kennan said, 
"One sometimes feels a guest of one's time and not a member of its household." 
Actually I never really felt like a guest. I always felt a bit like a stranger who had wandered into a party uninvited. I think this is the human condition and I remember Monsignor Gilbey used it as an argument for the existence of heaven, but I feel this applies more to me than to most of those around me. They seem to belong at this party.

For example, unlike the others, I never heard of any of the famous men who die these days. I had never heard of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Lou Read or Pete Seeger or Phil Everly. I think I had vaguely heard of Maximilian Schell, though I might have suspected him of possibly being either a woman or a soft porn film. 

I just put 'black singer died' into Google to remind me of the name of one Barry White, of whom I had not heard when he went to a better place. I heard of Freddy Mercury a day or two before his death, thanks to the BBC News.

I just now came across someone in his late 30s lamenting that he had met someone in their teens who had not heard of Heath Ledger. Nor had I but - and this is the killer - he died a decade or more ago.

I am evidently no longer young. But I realised this when I realised I was older than Basil Radford was in The Lady Vanishes.

A character in that wonderful novel, The Rector's Daughter, says of himself that he ignored his own generation and this was very priggish. I did too and agree that it is a very big mistake. Although, if you were in your teens in the 1970s, when almost the actors, singers, television stars and politicians were pretty ghastly, the fault is venial. 

Think of President Nixon.... and those dreadful suits he wore...and Patty Nixon. Though in retrospect he was rather a good president. Harold Wilson, Edward Heath....Cilla Black, Slade, all that awful rhythmic uneuphonious noise called music. The architecture, the executive semis in grey brick with Georgian bits stuck on unconvincingly. Even Pope Paul VI, though I wept when he died, was scarcely an impressive pope.

The only two famous 1970s figures whom I can think of with affection, offhand, were the comedians Eric Morecambe and Eric Sykes. Were there any others?

But there were wonderful Englishmen alive in every decade and the death of one of the finest, Kenneth Rose, last week hits me hard. I wish I had met him. He was the author of one of of the funniest books I have ever read, his biography of King George V. Sir Harold Nicolson who had written the King's official biography said in despair that he did nothing for years except stick stamps into albums. Rose, on the other hand, with a free hand that was denied Nicolson, turns the King into one of the immortal comic characters of English literature.

I remember so many stories from that book and wonder which ones to quote. Perhaps the story of how the King and Queen were shown round the world's first plastics factory by Sir Alfred Mond the Chairman of ICI who explained the process by which plastics were made in great detail. At the end the King turned to the Queen and said,
'Isn't that marvellous? And it's all made with milk, you know. Isn't that right, Mond?'
To which Mond replied,
'Yes, sir.'
Yet the King, though no intellectual, and in some ways very flawed, is yet an attractive figure, saying to one of his Prime Ministers (probably Baldwin?) that 
I worry that my subjects don't say their prayers at night. 
The King said when someone's homosexuality was mentioned,
I thought people like that shot themselves.
I remember my lecturer, David Cannadine, in a review of the book, thought that remark deplorable. I thought it showed a charming unworldliness. (James Callaghan, by the way, did not hear about homosexuality until he was in his thirties, despite being in the navy. If only such innocence were possible now.)

Rose's equally amusing The Later Cecils, which has wonderful anecdotes about twentieth century members of the Cecil family, is exactly the kind of book that makes Guardian readers foam at the mouth. It deserves praise for that but it has many other merits. The story that comes to my mind is about the Rev. Lord William Cecil, presented with a statuette by wartime refugees whom he had housed. He looked at it, his mind turning to the reasons why they had been billeted on him, and said mournfully,

War is a terrible thing.
I own but have not opened Rose's life of Lord Curzon. Curzon's patrician glamour and what one biographer called his 'rollicking pomposity' made it easy to overrate him, especially in our egalitarian era. 

The Telegraph's obituary makes it clear that Rose was a charming social climber. Social climbing was one of many pretty harmless activities that I always used to consider morally wrong but in fact I wish I had been one. I often tell myself that these days but do not bother to do anything about it and thereby miss out on kindred spirits and good conversation.


  1. I think you are really too young to have heard of the Everly brothers - more my vintage. Heath Ledger d. 22/01/2008. Alexander

  2. I, too, had never heard of Philip Seymour Hoffman until he was found dead of a heroin overdose. Will anybody care who he was in ten years' time? I doubt it very much.

  3. I, too, had never heard of Philip Seymour Hoffman until he was found dead of a heroin overdose. Will anybody care who he was in ten years time, apart from his nearest and dearest? I doubt it very much.

  4. LOL [have you heard of that :) ]

  5. I enjoyed this, the only thing I disagree with is about Pope Paul VI. One of the most brilliant and intelligent of Popes, his problem was he saw too many sides to each situation and therefore found it difficult to make decisions.
    I would like to read the biography of George V, he sounds interesting!

  6. One of the reasons you feel out of place at the party may be that the music is too loud. The 70s was probably the richest of all the decades for popular music – the rise of black influence in funk and soul (Barry White is in there, early Michael Jackson, hugely influential even now) and the power of the Blaxploitation revolution, Shaft, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, etc.. Closer to your home, British “progressive rock” acts Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yes were taking technique and production so far towards the edge that punk/New Wave had to step in and stop it. The US music industry in 70s promoted or accommodated a huge number of top musicians, and pretty much all of Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers, Little Feat, etc. is sitting slap in the middle of the decade, You might have had your nose in an English political biography aged 15, my friend, but your fellow party goers were watching open mouthed at the faster and hotter movements going on right outside your door J