Jason Goowin reviews the memoirs of John Julius Norwich
In 1957 John Julius Cooper (later Norwich) was keeping open house in Beirut, ‘the Clapham Junction of the world’s air routes’.Guests were given dinner on the terrace, where the Coopers liked to watch their faces ‘as, promptly at ten minutes past nine, an immense, luminous grapefruit appeared from behind Sannine and climbed slowly up into the eastern sky’.
JJ’s passions — for history, for Venice, for music — have always been enlivened by a sense of theatre: his books are erudite and entertaining. His mother, Lady Diana, took to the stage at the age of 30; she had some of the instincts of a stage manager, too, never more in demand than when she became the chatelaine of the British embassy in Paris after the war. His father, Duff Cooper, was a diplomat. JJ’s uncle, the Duke of Rutland, always had 60 or 70 people to Belvoir Castle over Christmas and New Year — JJ, as an only child, skipped merrily between the battlements and the cousins.
The Coopers’ weekend guests included H. G. Wells, the Churchills, and Hilaire Belloc, who sang ancient French songs in an old, cracked voice. JJ performed, too, for pocket money: there was never any question of not including him. He was a longed-for miracle — Diana was 37 and had been told she would never have children. She once told her son that by 1916 Duff Cooper was the only boy she’d ever danced with who was still alive.
Duff drank hard and toured America to drum up support for the war. When it broke out, the 11-year-old JJ found himself spirited away for safety to a prep-school in Canada, an experience he seems to have enjoyed although it kept him away from his parents for a year. Eventually he returned to Eton, where a boy’s life was still largely a Victorian pantomime of fagging and hot buttered toast. His parents got the Paris embassy job in 1944, making JJ possibly the youngest British visitor to Paris since 1939; he flew there in an RAF transport, too. In splendid contravention of publishing fashion, these are memoirs of almost unalloyed happiness, and they recreate a world which seems, on the whole, safer, wittier and richer than our own.
For the next three years Diana dispensed scotch and sympathy to needy Parisians, while her husband worked at keeping de Gaulle away from Winston. JJ writes compellingly about the glamour and edginess of those years, when Parisian society was in turmoil; he even witnessed Maurice Chevalier, who had performed in Paris all through the Occupation, rehabilitate himself onstage in a single performance. It was an Ensa production of The Merry Widow, and Chevalier’s turn was warily slotted into the cabaret scene. The audience received him doubtfully and yet, after a few songs, a wave of the boater, a twinkle in the eye, they wouldn’t let him go; the encores lasted 40 minutes. The effect was not lost on the young Cooper: Byzantine emperors, like the early doges, were frequently charismatic, too.
Cooper did not ‘distinguish himself’ at Eton or Oxford, but then every house he ever visited, or lived in, had eye-wateringly distinguished people falling out of the doors. FDR refused him an autograph (‘Office won’t allow me’) but he did cadge a piece of pie off de Gaulle, who gave it to him, surprised, noting that it was covered in his cigar ash. Over lunch at No. 10 he gave Churchill a frank account of Eton life that drew the great man’s scowl. In his teens the Berlin he knew was Isaiah. Merle Oberon fixed up his first marriage.
Having listened to Hilaire Belloc, he joined the FO out of Oxford with a repertoire of songs, both in French and English, which he could sing to the guitar; the consummate showman Burl Ives was a favourite. That talent, and slivovitz, saw him through three years in Belgrade, the grimmest capital of Eastern Europe. Beirut was his eventual reward, from where, like that luminous grapefruit, his own career began its climb into the eastern sky.
Since then in print, on television and on tour, threading his audience through the bazaars and palaces of the Levant, he has been something of a national cicerone. Here he writes delicately of his marriages and affairs, from which he has emerged with three interesting children and a house in Little Venice where he confidently intends to live for the remainder of his days.
How good if the young were to read this book. After all, Lord Norwich, author of multi-volume works on Venice and the Byzantines, television presenter and music buff, is a faintly fearsome figure. Refreshing to discover from these engrossing memoirs that his grandfather was a bottom doctor, that the title came almost by accident, and that he is the happy possessor of two tattoos, one on each arm.
Jason Goodwin’s latest novel, The Bellini Card, is published by Faber at £12.99.